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10th Circuit: Pleading Guilty Without Entering a Plea Agreement Can't Lead to Harsher Sentence

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on January 14, 2022 11:18 AM

Pleading not guilty in federal court is risky, as federal prosecutors have turned negotiating plea agreements into an art form. Defendants who take their chances at trial are often given lengthier sentences for failing to cooperate if convicted.

But what about a defendant who pleads guilty without entering a plea agreement? The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently took this matter of first impression up in United States v. Cozad. They held that under federal law, a district court cannot impose a harsher sentence based solely on a defendant's decision to plead guilty without a plea agreement.

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A Breakdown in Plea Negotiations

The underlying case concerned a federal criminal charge involving counterfeit money. The defendant in the case sought probation, while prosecutors would only agree to a sentence at the lower end of the recommended sentencing guideline range. The two sides were unable to reach an agreement, but the defendant pleaded guilty anyway—without any agreement in place. The prosecution recommended a sentence at the low end of the guideline range, similar to what they offered during plea negotiations.

Despite this, the district court imposed a sentence in the middle tier of recommended sentencing—i.e., a harsher sentence than even the prosecution was asking for. At sentencing, the district court judge explained, "if someone agrees to a plea agreement . . . they're entitled to additional consideration, which is where I start at a low end guideline range. But in my calculation, without a plea agreement, I have always started with looking more at the mid-tier of the guideline range[.]"

The question, then, was whether the court could use the absence of a plea agreement as a factor to increase the sentence. (The district court judge framed this practice as using a plea agreement to decrease the sentence from the default starting point of the middle of the recommended range).

Absence of a Plea Agreement Cannot Lead to Harsher Sentence

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that it couldn't. Federal sentencing is complicated, and generally judges have wide discretion in sentencing. But federal courts must consider the factors laid out under federal law when determining sentencing.

As the 10th Circuit put it, "the absence of a plea agreement provides no information that might aid a district court in determining how much punishment is sufficient to comply with the purposes of sentencing set out [in federal criminal procedure code.] To penalize a defendant based on the absence of a plea agreement alone is arbitrary."

Feds Seeking Leverage

The U.S. argued to the 10th Circuit that without the potential threat of a higher sentence, federal prosecutors will have less leverage to obtain plea agreements. After all, if the defendant receives the same sentence regardless of whether they enter into a plea agreement or not, what's the point of pleading guilty?

The 10th Circuit rejected this argument. They reasoned that prosecutors still have other tools to obtain cooperation, such as adding or removing charges and recommending a higher sentence to the court. Moreover, the court reasoned, the goal of sentencing is not to get a plea agreement, but to get fair punishment, deter future crimes, protect the public, and rehabilitate convicts.

Will This Decision Impact Federal Plea Agreements?

As the 10th Circuit pointed out, the federal government still has leverage in most cases to incentivize defendants to plead guilty, particularly seeing as the alternative of going to trial will remain a gamble for them. But this case seems to be a bit of good news for federal defendants that fear being punished simply for not ultimately reaching a plea deal.

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