Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hunter: Government breached plea agreement

In U.S. v. Hunter, No. 15-12640 (Aug. 26, 2016), the Court vacated a defendant’s sentenced because the government breached the plea agreement. The plea agreement provided that the government would recommend at sentencing an acceptance of responsibility sentence reduction. Hunter pled guilty to his drug trafficking charges. In response to the presentence investigation report, the government, instead of requesting a reduction for acceptance of responsibility, sought an upward departure or variance. The district court decided to give the acceptance of responsibility reduction, but then, at the government’s urging, imposed a 60-month sentence, an upward departure or variance from the Guideline range of 18-24 months. Hunter’s plea agreement contained an appeal waiver; but an appeal waiver does not include a waiver of a government’s breach of a plea agreement. The Court found that the government breached its promise to recommend an acceptance of responsibility sentence reduction. The government claimed that it was relieved of this obligation because, prior to the plea agreement, Hunter had testified at a suppression hearing in a manner that the district court found not to be credible, and it argued that this fell within one of the exceptions of the plea agreement. But “the government cannot avail itself of [exceptions to the plea agreement] based solely on facts of which it was aware prior to entering the plea agreement.” The government claimed that it anticipated that the district court would impose an obstruction of justice enhancement. But the government failed to condition its obligation to recommend the acceptance reduction on a specific ruling with regard to obstruction. The government cannot read the plea agreement as “a promise it knew it did not have to keep.” This would “induce a guilty plea in exchange for nothing.” The government claimed that Hunter was not entitled to any remedy, because the district ultimately disregarded its objection to an acceptance of responsibility reduction. The Court rejected this argument. “[W]e are not concerned with whether the district court was influenced by the government’s recommendation (or lack thereof); instead, our focus in on the interests of justice.” The breach occurred before the district court imposed sentence; any actions by the district court thereafter could “neither moot nor cure the government’s breach.” The Court therefore applied one the applicable remedies in this circumstance: it remanded the case for resentencing before a different district court judge.