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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
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New Guideline Changes Can Affect Old Plea Deals

(CN) - Criminal defendants who previously entered into plea agreements should be allowed to try and retroactively reduce their sentences in situations where a sentencing guideline was later changed, a majority of Supreme Court justices ruled Thursday.

William Freeman, who pleaded guilty to drug charges stemming from a 2005 indictment, was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison based on an agreement that cited sentencing guideline recommendations of about nine to 10 years.

But in 2010, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the guideline for the crime with which Freeman was charged, correcting a sentencing disparity for crimes involving cocaine base versus powdered cocaine by shaving about nine months off the guidelines.

A federal judge refused Freeman's motion for a sentencing reduction and the 6th Circuit affirmed.

But Freeman will get another chance because "Five Members of the [High] Court agree that this judgment must be reversed," according to the majority opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The fifth member of the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, did not join in the lead opinion, but rather issued a separate decision concurring in the judgment. She argued that Freeman's sentences relied on the plea agreements, rather than sentencing guidelines, but his sentence may still be reduced since the underlying plea ties its sentencing recommendation to the guidelines range.

According to the majority, "there is no reason to deny" Freeman relief from his sentence since federal law allows judges to correct sentences ultimately found to have derived from unjustified frameworks.

"In every case the judge must exercise discretion to impose an appropriate sentence," Kennedy wrote. "This discretion, in turn, is framed by the Guidelines. And the Guidelines must be consulted, in the regular course, whether the case is one in which the conviction was after a trial or after a plea, including a plea pursuant to an agreement that recommends a particular sentence. The district judge's decision to impose a sentence may therefore be based on the Guidelines even if the defendant agrees to plead guilty[.] ... Where the decision to impose a sentence is based on a range later subject to retroactive amendment, [federal law] permits a sentence reduction."

Chief Justice John Roberts authored a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Like Sotomayor, they found that Freeman's sentence stemmed from the plea agreement, not the guidelines, but the dissenting justices say Sotomayor employed an "O. Henry twist."

"It is one thing to say that a sentence imposed pursuant to an agreement expressly providing that the court will sentence the defendant within an applicable Guidelines range is 'based on' that range," Roberts wrote. "It is quite another to conclude that an agreement providing for a specific term is "similarly" based on a Guidelines range, simply because the specified term can be said to reflect that range."

Roberts concludes the dissent noting that plea agreements, like any negotiation, are a compromise with bitter and sweet parts.

"Because of today's decision, however, Freeman gets more sweet and the Government more bitter than either side bargained for," he wrote. "But those who will really be left with a sour taste after today's decision are the lower courts charged with making sense of it going forward."

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