U.S. v. OBEY, NO. 14-4585

Decided: June 24, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that the Government did not breach a plea agreement with Obey, and the district court did not commit plain error in crafting Obey’s sentence for the drug charges to which he pleaded guilty.  On this basis, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court.

In January 2013, Obey was convicted by a federal grand jury on a variety of counts involving distribution of cocaine and cocaine base.  The district court sentenced him to 540 months imprisonment, and Obey appealed.  While the appeal was pending, the Government filed a motion to remand the case for a new trial pursuant to a Giglio v. U.S., 405 U.S. 150 (1972), error.  The Fourth Circuit granted the motion, vacated Obey’s conviction and sentence, and remanded to the district court.  Obey then pleaded guilty to cocaine distribution and aiding and abetting.  In his plea agreement, Obey waived his right to appeal and the Government agreed to recommend an 18-year term of imprisonment.  At the July, 2014 sentencing hearing, the Government recommended the 18-year term of imprisonment, and the court asked about a pending state murder charge, which the Government said was due to go to trial in August, 2014.  The court found that the Government’s request for a lower sentence lacked merit, and imposed a 240-month term of imprisonment, the statutory maximum.  The court further made the prison term “‘consecutive to any other State or Federal sentence, including any unimposed sentence [Obey] might receive’ for the pending state murder charge.”  Obey appealed, arguing that the Government breached its plea agreement, and that the district court did not have the authority to make his prison sentence for the drug charges consecutive to a future sentence.  

The Fourth Circuit first reviewed the claim that the Government breached its plea agreement.  Since Obey first raised this claim on appeal, the court reviewed for plain error, and found no breach by the Government.  The Fourth Circuit based this finding on the fact that the prosecutor encouraged the district court several times at the sentencing hearing to adopt the 18-year prison sentence the Government agreed to recommend, and did so without critiquing the terms of the plea agreement, or undercutting its legality.  Though the prosecutor did not explicitly give reasons supporting the recommended sentence, the Fourth Circuit found that the plea agreement did not require the prosecutor to do so.  Further, the court found that the prosecutor explained at sentencing why the Government supported the plea agreement, though the plea agreement did not require him to do so.  Obey argued that at one point during the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor testified that there was “‘no real rhyme or reason for coming to [an agreement of] 18 years [imprisonment],’” and that this statement constituted a breach of the plea agreement.  The Fourth Circuit found, however, that taken in context, this statement merely explained to the sentencing court how the Government and Obey came to an agreement on 18 years imprisonment.  

The Fourth Circuit next analyzed Obey’s claim that the district court erred in imposing a sentence to run consecutive to any future Federal or State sentence.  Because Obey raised this claim for the first time on appeal, the court again reviewed for plain error.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed case law, which held that a district court could impose a sentence to run consecutive to an anticipated state sentence, but at least in the Fourth Circuit, a district court cannot impose a sentence to run consecutive to an anticipated Federal sentence.  On this basis, the Fourth Circuit held that while Obey was correct that the district court erred in ordering his sentence run consecutive to “‘any other State or Federal sentence,’” the court found that this error was not plain, especially given an unpublished Fourth Circuit opinion which supported the actions of the district court here.  On this basis, the court found that the district court did not plainly err in imposing its sentence.

Full Opinion

Katherine H. Flynn

 

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