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Misstated Maximum? Defendant Not Entitled to Lesser Sentence

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 25, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held this week that a defendant is not bound by his appeal waiver if he was incorrectly told that his maximum sentence would be shorter than the mandatory minimum sentence.

But that doesn't mean that a court must adjust the defendant's sentence.

William Davis pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and received a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). Both in his plea agreement and at his plea hearing, Davis was advised incorrectly that he faced a maximum sentence of only 10 years.

Davis claimed that this error breached his plea agreement, and asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to order that he receive the 10-year sentence described incorrectly as his statutory maximum. He also challenged the district court's conclusion that he qualified for the ACCA sentence enhancement. The government, in turn, tried to enforce the appeal waiver in Davis' plea agreement.

The Fourth Circuit held that the failure to properly advise Davis of his statutory maximum sentence was not a breach by the government. Under these circumstances, however, the court concluded that Davis did not knowingly and intelligently waive the right to appeal his 15-year sentence.

Despite misstating Davis' statutory maximum, the plea agreement advised that the district court had the final say regarding his sentence. The government also expressly disclaimed any "representations whatsoever ... as to what the final disposition in this matter should and will be." After summarizing the government's obligations, the agreement advised that "the Court is not bound by these sentence recommendations, and that the defendant has no right to withdraw a guilty plea if the Court does not follow the sentencing recommendations."

Furthermore, the appellate court noted that "even if the government had made such a promise, the district court would have been compelled to reject the agreement because the government cannot obligate the court to impose a sentence that contravenes the statute."

Misinforming a defendant about his statutory maximum or mandatory minimum sentence may void consent to an appeal waiver under a contract theory, but the remedy can't be the misstated sentence when that sentence conflicts with the mandatory minimum.

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