Eleventh Circuit Upholds Ineligibility of Sentence Reduction Following Plea Agreement in United States v. Hughes

Eleventh Circuit Upholds Ineligibility of Sentence Reduction Following Plea Agreement in United States v. Hughes
Katie Wroten*

Defendant’s appeal in United States v. Hughes, 849 F.3d 1008 (11th Cir. 2017), follows the Northern District of Georgia Court’s decision to deny a sentence reduction previously agreed upon in a plea arrangement. Because the sentence in the plea was not “based on” a sentencing range, a subsequent sentencing guideline reduction did not apply retroactively to the defendant’s sentence.

In 2013, Erik Hughes pleaded guilty to two counts: felon in possession of a fire arm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 500 grams of methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A)(viii), 846. Hughes, 849 F.3d at 1010. The government offered a plea agreement including a 180-month imprisonment sentence. The United States Sentencing Guidelines sentencing range for the crimes suggested 188 to 235 months. By accepting the plea agreement, the district court was bound to impose the suggested 180-month sentence, which fell below the guidelines. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) (providing plea agreement procedures). In November 2015, Amendment 782 reduced the Sentencing Guidelines for certain drug offenses by two levels, to be applied retroactively. Hughes, 849 F.3d at 1011. Hughes filed a motion one year later to reduce his sentence following the change. See 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) (“[I]n the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission . . . upon motion . . . may [seek to] reduce the term of imprisonment”) (emphasis added).

The Eleventh Circuit faced “whether a defendant who entered into a plea agreement that recommended a particular sentence as a condition of his guilty plea is eligible for a reduced sentence.” Hughes, 849 F.3d at 1010. The issue turned on the interpretation of the “based on” language of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Applying the rule of Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977), to the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision that Hughes is ineligible for a reduction because his sentence was not “based on” a sentencing range. Hughes, 849 F.3d at 1010.

In Freeman, the district court enforced a plea agreement sentence per Rule 11(c)(1)(C), and later denied defendant’s motion seeking post guideline change reduction. 564 U.S. at 525. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 528. The Supreme Court reversed, in a five-to-four plurality decision. Id. at 525-26. The Court agreed that Freeman’s sentence could be reduced, but offered two lines of reasoning. Four Justices found that inevitably, every judge must evaluate a recommendation in light of the sentencing guidelines and assess whether it is appropriate, and therefore “the court’s acceptance is itself based on the Guidelines.” Id. at 529 (emphasis added). Justice Sotomayor recognized two specific examples in which reduction is “based on” guidelines, and therefore appropriate per 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). First, when a plea agreement calls for a defendant to be sentenced within a particular range. Id. at 538. Second, when a plea agreement “makes clear” that the basis for an agreed-upon sentence recommendation is a guidelines sentencing range. Id. at 539. Therefore, Sotomayor concurred only in the Court’s judgment. Id. at 534.

The Eleventh Circuit in Hughes therefore considered both lines of reasoning. The Marks rule requires lower courts to adopt a “position taken by th[e] [Justice] who concurred in the judgment[] on the narrowest grounds.” 430 U.S. at 193. Following the footsteps of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits, the court found Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning to be the narrowest approach. See United States v. Rivera-Martinez, 665 F.3d 344, 348 (1st Cir. 2011); United States v. Thompson, 682 F.3d 285, 289 (3rd Cir. 2012); United States v. Brown, 653 F.3d 337, 340 n.1 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Benitez, 822 F.3d 807, 811 (5th Cir. 2016); United States v. Smith, 658 F.3d 608, 611 (6th Cir. 2011); United States v. Dixon, 687 F.3d 356, 359 (7th Cir. 2012); United States v. Browne, 698 F.3d 1042, 1045 (8th Cir. 2012); United States v. Graham, 704 F.3d 1275, 1277-78 (10th Cir. 2013) (finding Sotomayor’s reasoning to be the holding of Freeman). Whereas the plurality reached the broad interpretation that defendants should always receive relief, Sotomayor identified only certain instances in which relief is appropriate. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the Ninth and D.C. Circuits’ deviating views, finding their reasoning unpersuasive. Hughes, 849 F.3d at 1013.

Adopting Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning in Freeman as controlling authority, the court concluded that Hughes is not eligible for a sentence reduction. Id. at 1015. First, his plea arrangement did not specify a range, but instead identified a specific number of months. Second, the court found the agreement does not “make clear” that the basis for the recommendation was the sentencing guidelines. The plea does not specifically identify the Sentencing Guidelines, nor does it “calculate Hughes’s range or discuss factors that must be used to determine that range, such as Hughes’s criminal history.” Id. at 1016. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court.

*Katie Wroten is a member of the 2017-18 Executive Board for Georgia Law Review.

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