Plea Agreement Rejected and Government Not Allowed to Withdraw Charges
When the Court rejected the plea agreement, the government was not allowed to withdraw a lesser charge in the Sixth Circuit.
United States vs. Bell, No. 21-5008 (6th Cir. 2022).
Bell and Plea Agreement
In August 2018, a federal grand jury returned a two-count indictment which charged Bell with distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and possession with intent to distribute heroin and fentanyl, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(C). Bell entered into a plea agreement with the United States wherein he would plead guilty to the “lesser included offense in Count 1.”
Without the plea agreement, Count 1 would have carried a statutory minimum term of 20 years to life imprisonment. And although no lesser included count was charged in the indictment, the government consented to Bell pleading guilty to an offense which only carried a statutory maximum term of 40 years.
Pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the parties agreed to a sentence of 168 months imprisonment. Under Rule 11(c)(1)(C), if the district court accepts the plea agreement it is bound by the terms. Bell formally pled guilty and the district court accepted his guilty plea, but the court deferred acceptance of the plea agreement until after review of the pre-sentence report.
The pre-sentence report contained a “vast discrepancy” between the guidelines which recommended 6 to 12 months imprisonment and the 168-month sentence required by the 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement. At sentencing, the district court decided to reject the agreement and, pursuant to Rule 11, offered Bell the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea. Bell declined to do so.
The government objected and asked the court to set the matter for trial. However, the court overruled the government’s objection and sentenced Bell to 30 months on the lesser included offense of Count 1.
The government appealed the district court’s decision and asked the Sixth Circuit to vacate Bell’s conviction and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings on the greater charged offense contained in the indictment. On appeal, the government argued that Bell could not plead guilty to the lesser included offense that was not charged in the indictment without the plea agreement. According to the government, when the district court rejected the plea agreement the government should have been able to withdraw its consent to the plea to the lesser included offense. The Sixth Circuit disagreed.
The appellate court held that the government consented to a plea to a lesser included offense which required Bell enter a voluntary guilty plea. The argument that the government’s consent was contingent on the court’s acceptance of the plea agreement was contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Hyde, 520 U.S. 670 (1997) which rejected the notion that pleas and plea agreements are bound together under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Further, the court noted that Rule 11 specifically allows the defendant, not the prosecutor, to withdraw or persist in a guilty plea if the district court rejects the plea agreement. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(5). Put simply, the government cannot withdraw a defendant’s guilty plea where the plea has been accepted and the plea agreement rejected by the district court.
The Sixth Circuit also rejected the government’s alternative arguments that the language of the plea agreement nullified the agreement in the event the district court declined acceptance. But the appellate court found that this language was consistent with Rule 11 and did not make Bell’s plea to the lesser included offense contingent upon acceptance of the plea agreement.
Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s sentence and denied the government’s contemporaneously filed petition for writ of mandamus on the same grounds.