Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Value of a Plea Agreement

In U.S. v. Cesal, No. 03-15090 (Nov. 23, 2004), the Court (Carnes, Hull, and Wilson) affirmed the conviction and life sentence for a charge of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. The Court rejected several claims of error regarding Mr. Cesal's guilty plea and his request to proceed pro se. And the Court ruled that Mr. Cesal had waived his right to appeal his life sentence.
The Court relied on the written plea agreement entered into by Mr. Cesal and the government that was negotiated on the day of trial while the jury that had been selected but not sworn waited outside the courtroom. On the eve of trial, Mr. Cesal's co-defendant had negotiated a plea agreement with the government. In the plea agreement, Mr. Cesal consented to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana, to waive his right to appeal his sentence, and to cooperate with the government. The government agreed to hold Mr. Cesal accountable for only 1000 to 3000 kilograms of marijuana. The agreement also stated that if Mr. Cesal failed to fulfill his obligations, the government could recommend any sentence it deemed appropriate. Mr. Cesal entered his plea of guilty immediately and was then debriefed by government agents. A few days later, Mr. Cesal sought to withdraw his plea based on his disagreement with the facts as set out by the government and ineffective assistance of counsel.
In affirming the conviction, the Court noted that the plea colloquy, held right after the agreement was hammered out, did not go smoothly with Mr. Cesal expressing some pressure to plead guilty based on the higher sentence he faced if he went to trial and disagreeing with some of the facts in the government's factual proffer. But the Court held that the district court had addressed the core concerns of Rule 11 by ensuring that the plea was voluntary, that Mr. Cesal understood the nature of the charges and he understood the consequences of his guilty plea. The Court also found no abuse of discretion in the denial of a motion to withdraw the guilty plea noting the sufficient time spent on negotiating the agreement, the assistance of counsel, and the fact that the court was poised to begin the trial with a jury waiting when the plea was accepted. The Court further ruled that the government did not breach the plea agreement when it argued that Mr. Cesal should be held responsible for more than10,000 kilograms of marijuana, as he admitted in his debriefing, instead of the limit of 1000 to 3000 kilograms noted in the plea agreement. The Court agreed with the government that Mr. Cesal's request to withdraw his plea and his testimony at a hearing on that issue constituted a breach of the agreement which then allowed the government to argue for whatever punishment it deemed appropriate.
The Court also upheld the denial of Mr. Cesal's request to proceed pro se noting his vacillation on that issue before the district court. Finally, the Court upheld the appellate waiver contained in the plea agreement in which Mr. Cesal expressly agreed to waive his right to appeal his sentence, and, thus dismissed that portion of the appeal. [Summary by Tim Cone]