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Undocumented Immigrant Bound by Bad Plea Deal

(CN) - Even if a judge wrongly amped up his sentence for a "crime of violence," a man imprisoned for more than four years for illegally entering the United States after being deported waived his right to appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday.

On Jan. 8, 2013, Mexican citizen Jose Medina-Carrasco was arrested in Arizona nearly three years after his first expulsion from the United States.

His "fast-track" plea deal listed 18 different possible sentencing ranges, the lightest spanning between four to 10 months imprisonment and the heaviest putting him behind bars from six to seven years.

Despite the wildly uncertain range, Medina-Carrasco signed an extensive waiver of his appellate rights as to any of the possible outcomes.

Medina-Carrasco had a prior conviction for aggravated assault, which triggered a sharp increase in his sentence exposure for a "crime of violence."

The Ninth Circuit's opinion reveals few details of the circumstances of that past offense, except to say that prosecutors now concede it was not violent.

However, Medina-Carrasco's defense attorney did not object to this penalty, and it stiffened the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Raner Collins to 55 months behind bars.

A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday that Medina-Carrasco signed away his rights to contest the harsher sentence.

"We cannot accept defendant's alternate interpretation for two reasons," Circuit Judge Susan Graber wrote for the majority.

"First, defendant's reading would render meaningless the express waiver of the right to challenge 'any sentencing guideline determinations,' contrary to basic principles of contract interpretation," Graber wrote for the majority. "Second, to allow an allegedly incorrect guidelines calculation to render inapplicable a waiver of the right to appeal sentencing guidelines determinations 'would nullify the waiver based on the very sort of claim it was intended to waive.'"

Dissenting Judge Paul Friedman, sitting by designation from the District of Columbia, noted that such waivers can only be upheld if they are signed "knowingly and intelligently."

"A defendant cannot know what he or she has given up by waiving the right to appeal until after the judge and counsel have reviewed a yet-to-be-prepared presentence investigation report, after the judge has considered other information not known to the defendant at the time of the plea, and after the judge has actually imposed sentence," Friedman wrote. "By then it is too late, no matter how disproportionate the sentence or how egregious the procedural or substantive errors committed by the sentencing judge or the defendant's own counsel."

In Medina-Carrasco's case, his waiver forced him to predict that his sentence would be miscalculated.

"Such prospective waivers in anticipation of unknown future events are inherently unknowing and unintelligent," Friedman wrote.

Medina-Carrasco's attorney Jill Thorpe did not immediately respond to email and telephone requests for comment.

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