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Ninth Circuit Vacates Guilty Plea Based on Insufficient Factual Basis for Conspiracy

The Court in Shortman held that there was not a sufficient factual basis for the plea and reversed the decision.

United States v. Shortman, No. 21-30198 (9th Cir. Dec. 8, 2022)

Facts:  Shortman Pleads guilty to conspiracy charges, later alleges no factual basis.

Shortman pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and one count of possession with intent to distribute. During the plea hearing, Shortman admitted that she “knowingly distributed with-well, conspired with somebody else that [she was] going to distribute methamphetamine.” But that was the extent of her admission as to the conspiracy charge.

The district court asked the government whether the evidence showed not just a source, but some agreement with someone else to in fact distribute methamphetamine. The government responded affirmatively, but offered no facts to support its reply. The court accepted the government’s conclusory assertion.

On appeal, Shortman argued that the district court failed to establish a sufficient factual basis to support her guilty plea to the conspiracy. Shortman argued that the factual-basis proffered to the court only established a buyer-seller relationship and not a conspiratorial agreement.

About Plea Agreements and Factual Basis Claims

Usually when a person pleads guilty to a charge, a "factual basis" is submitted to the court. The factual basis is an explanation of what the person is accused of doing and an explanation of the charges and the claims. “The purpose of [the factual basis] requirement is to ensure that the defendant is not mistaken about whether the conduct he admits to satisfies the elements of the offense charged.  Bare, conclusory statements agreeing with statutory elements [do] not suffice to fulfill that purpose [ ]."

About Conspiracy charges and Buyer-Seller Agreements

To prove conspiracy, the government must show that the buyer and seller had an agreement to distribute the controlled substance. Under the buyer-seller rule, the mere sale to others does not establish a conspiracy. Instead, there must be an agreement between the buyer and seller to redistribute. The Ninth Circuit further noted that distinguishing between a conspiracy and a buyer-seller relationship is a fact-intensive and context-dependent inquiry.

Holding:  No Sufficient Factual Basis was Submitted in this Case.

Notably, Shortman’s counsel raised the buyer-seller argument before the district court, but then abandoned the issue when the government stated it had determined that Shortman was distributing to other persons. The appellate court found that counsel’s acceptance of the government’s evidence of a conspiracy suggested that he misunderstood the elements of conspiracy and the buyer-seller rule that he invoked.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that neither the plea colloquy nor the record as a whole established a sufficient factual basis to show that Shortman’s relationship with her supplier went beyond buyer-seller into a conspiracy. As such, the district court plainly erred in accepting Shortman’s guilty plea on Count One. The court reversed Shortman’s conviction on the conspiracy charge and remanded to the district court for resentencing.

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