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United States v. Davis, No. 11-6301

Decided: July 23, 2012

In this case, the Fourth Circuit held that a criminal defendant sentenced to a fifteen-year minimum sentence could not have his sentence reduced where, in both the plea agreement and at the plea hearing, the government mistakenly misstated the defendant’s potential sentence as a ten-year maximum.

As part of a written plea agreement, William Davis pleaded guilty to the unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.  The agreement between the government and Davis provided that “the maximum penalty to which the defendant will be exposed by virtue of his plea of guilty…is imprisonment for a period of (10) ten years.”  The agreement failed, however, to inform Davis that if he were designated by the court as an “armed career criminal,” he would be subject to a sentence enhancement and a resulting fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence.  In addition to the misleading plea agreement, at the plea hearing the government reiterated, and the district judge explained in the plea colloquy, that Davis’s prison term would be not more than ten years.  Nonetheless, at the subsequent sentencing hearing, the district judge accepted a presentencing report from the probation officer that indicated that Davis had three prior convictions for violent felonies and was thus considered an armed career criminal under federal sentencing guidelines.  Pursuant to the defendant’s status as a thrice convicted felon, the judge imposed on Davis the enhanced sentence of fifteen years in prison.

On appeal, Davis sought to have his sentence reduced, arguing that the “government breached the plea agreement by failing to adhere to its promise of a ten-year prison sentence.”  The Fourth Circuit rejected Davis’s claim because, while acknowledging that a plea agreement represents a binding contract between a defendant and the government, in this case the government agreed to “make a series of nonbinding recommendations,” with no explicit promises regarding the prison term.  Although the agreement contained a misstatement regarding the length of the potential sentence, according to the court, the agreement also “advised that the district court had the final say regarding his sentence.”  Furthermore, the agreement provided that “the Court is not bound by these sentencing recommendations and that the defendant has no right to withdraw a guilty plea if the Court does not follow the sentencing recommendations.”   Accordingly, the court held that Davis was never denied the benefit of his plea bargain, and therefore, his sentence would not be reduced.

The court also reasoned that even if the government had breached its promise to Davis, the district judge, bound by the strictures of the sentencing guidelines, had no discretion to impose a sentence less than the statutorily mandated fifteen years.  Regardless of the terms of a plea agreement, the court stated, district judges are compelled by federal law to impose an enhanced sentence for a defendant classified as armed career criminal.  Thus, the court recognized that neither the district judge nor the appellate panel had the authority “to impose an unlawful sentence.”

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Kiser of the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation, concurred with the court’s result, writing that the government did in fact breach a promise to Davis.  Judge Kiser argued that, despite the absence of an explicit guarantee in the plea agreement, it was reasonable for Davis to believe that he was being promised a maximum sentence of ten years due to both the mistaken assurances from the government and the trial judge’s failure to clarify that certain factors in Davis’s presentence report could result in an enhancement.  Nonetheless, Judge Kiser concluded that Davis was not entitled to a reduced sentence because, under the plain error doctrine, Davis could not show that his sentencing outcome was prejudiced by the government’s breach, i.e., the broken promise had no effect on his actual terms of imprisonment because the sentence was subject to a mandated statutory scheme.

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III