Sotomayor's Cue Taken on Retroactive Plea Deals
BOSTON (CN) - The 1st Circuit has refused to reduce the sentence of inmate who claims he would have gotten a better deal under newly amended guidelines for crimes involving crack cocaine.
The issue of how amended sentencing guidelines should affect criminal defendants who previously entered plea agreements has been a divisive issue in the courts.
Correcting a sentencing disparity for crimes involving crack cocaine, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to modify the quantities that trigger certain "base offense levels." It later made the amendment retroactive.
In Freeman v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that defendants may be eligible for retroactively reduced sentences if they pleaded under guidelines that were subsequently reduced.
Though Justice Sonia Sotomayor sided with the majority in this case, she split slightly from her colleagues in contemplating whether a defendant's plea relied on plea agreements rather than sentencing guidelines. Concluding that William Freeman's underlying plea tied the sentencing recommendation to the guidelines range, she agreed that his sentence may still be reduced.
After the justices decided Freeman on June 23, they ordered the 1st Circuit to reconsider the case of Robin Eddie Rivera-Martinez in this light.
On Dec. 20, the 1st Circuit called upon Sotomayor's concurring opinion to deny Rivera-Martinez a sentencing reduction.
The defendant pleaded guilty in March 2000 to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of crack cocaine.
"Although the parties agreed to a 240-month sentence, the agreement said nothing about either the defendant's criminal history category or his guideline sentencing range," Judge Bruce Selya wrote for the three-member panel.
Accepting the agreement, a federal judge sentenced Rivera-Martinez to 20 years on Sept. 12, 2000. Rivera-Martinez applied for a sentence reduction amid the Sentencing Commission developments, but the motion failed. The 1st Circuit affirmed rejection, citing the trial court's reliance on the plea agreement rather than the guidelines.
On remand from the Supreme Court, the appellate judges would not waver.
"The short of it is that we cannot identify a referenced sentencing range from the agreement alone," Selya wrote. "We would have to supplement the Agreement with either the parties' background negotiations or the facts that informed the sentencing judge's decision to accept the plea. Justice Sotomayor's concurrence forbids us from making such an archeological dig. We therefore conclude that the defendant is not eligible for a sentencing reduction."