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Eleventh Circuit Vacates and Remands District Court's Rejection of Plea Agreement: Clark

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United States v. Clark, No. 21-14473 (11th Cir. 2022)

In November 2019, a grand jury convicted Clark and 32 codefendants of various controlled substance offenses. Clark eventually entered into a plea agreement with the government which included a broad appeal waiver.

However, the parties were notified that the district court would reject the plea agreement based on the proposed appeal waiver’s statement that Clark waived an appeal of a sentence within the Guidelines range as that range was calculated by the district court. The parties were put on notice that the waiver had “the potential of leading to a result that [was] inconsistent with the interests of justice and conflict[ed] with consistency in sentencing.” Both parties argued against the district court’s rejection of the plea agreement.

When the court ultimately rejected the plea agreement, Clark entered a “blind” plea to two counts, but objected to the rejection of the plea agreement. The district court accepted Clark’s blind plea, and Clark was subsequently sentenced to 180 month imprisonment.

Clark timely appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. On appeal, both Clark and the government argued that the district court abused its discretion in rejecting the plea agreement. Both parties argued that the district court’s reasons for rejecting the agreement (1) reflected a misunderstanding of the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Boyd, 975 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2020), and (2) was contradicted by the court’s acceptance of plea agreements with identical waivers in codefendants’ cases.

First, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the district court’s rejection of Clark’s plea agreement was based on an erroneous interpretation of Boyd. In Boyd, the court held that a plea agreement which barred review unless the sentence exceeded the advisory Guidelines range unambiguously barred review of the district court’s Guidelines calculations. Here, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the district court erred in finding that Boyd changed the circuit’s caselaw for reviewing appeal waivers, and that such a misinterpretation was an abuse of discretion.

Second, the appellate court agreed with the parties that the district court’s acted arbitrarily in accepting the plea agreements from other codefendants with identical language that the district court stated was the reason for rejecting Clark’s plea agreement.

Lastly, the court concluded that the rejection of the plea agreement prejudiced Clark. Without the plea agreement, the government was not obligated to consider recommending a sentence below the statutory minimum or to not press additional charges based on conduct within the same conspiracy.

Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit vacated Clark’s plea and sentence and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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