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U.S. v. WARNER, NO. 15-4316

Decided: April 27, 2016

The Fourth Circuit vacated the defendant’s sentence and remanded the case.

Xavier Warner, the defendant, stole a .40 caliber pistol after breaking into 19 motor vehicles in a parking deck.  The defendant was arrested and subsequently pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement to one count of aiding and abetting the theft of a firearm. As part of the plea agreement, the government agreed to advise the district court at sentencing that the 4-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B), which would increase the defendant’s offense level for use in connection with another felony, did not apply. The government agreed to this term because it did not view breaking and entering a motor vehicle as a felony offense for this defendant considering his criminal history.

Despite the agreement and contrary to previous filing, at sentencing the government stated that breaking and entering a motor vehicle did constitute a felony, regardless of the defendant’s criminal history, based on a recent decision that tended to support the application of the enhancement. However, the government still asked the court to honor the plea agreement. The court chose to apply the enhancement and sentenced the defendant to 48 months’ imprisonment. The defendant appealed.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that although the government acted in good faith, it breached the plea agreement by stating that the enhancement did apply. Based on the holding in United States v. Jordan, 509 F.3d 191, 195 (4th Cir. 2007), the court noted that traditional contract law may used as a guide, plea agreements are subject to greater scrutiny than a commercial contract. As such, the court determined that the substance of the agreement was clear: “The government agreed to advise the court of its position that U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) does not apply in this case.” (emphasis omitted). Such finding was supported by e-mail exchanges leading up to the agreement, as well as the government’s initial filing with the court after executing the agreement. The court noted that the government’s statement that the enhancement applies, but should not be imposes is substantially different than a statement that the enhancement does not apply. Relying on United States v.Scruggs, 356 F.3d 539, 543-44 (4th Cir. 2004), the court further determined that the breach was material because the e-mail negotiations demonstrate that the government’s willingness to state the enhancement did not apply was critical to the defendant’s decision to take the deal.

Accordingly, the court vacated the sentence and remanded the case for resentencing before a different district judge.

Full Opinion

Megan Clemency