By Whitney Pakalka

On January 28, 2016, the Fourth Circuit published its opinion in the criminal case, United States v. Williams, clarifying when an appellate court may review a prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement made under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Court held that unless the sentence imposed is greater than that set forth in the plea agreement, the sentence will only be reviewable if it is unlawful or is expressly based on the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Because appellant’s plea agreement did not satisfy these criteria, the Court dismissed her attempted appeal of her sentence.

Defendants’ Plea Agreements and Arguments on Appeal

Both David James Williams, III and Kristin Deantanetta Williams separately pleaded guilty to one count of federal conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and cocaine base.   Both defendants entered into plea agreements under Rule 11(c)(1)(C), each stipulating that a sentence of 120 months imprisonment was “the appropriate disposition in this case.” The District Court for the District of South Carolina sentenced Defendants in accordance with those agreements.

David Williams and Kristin Williams challenged their convictions on appeal, but only Kristin Williams challenged her sentence. As to the challenged convictions, counsel raised questions as to whether the district court complied with Rule 11 as to both Defendants. The Fourth Circuit rejected this challenge and affirmed both convictions, finding that the District Court fully complied with Rule 11’s requirements. Kristin Williams’ appeal also questioned whether her sentence was reasonable. The Fourth Circuit considered whether it had jurisdiction to review her sentence on appeal.

Appropriate Review of Kristin Williams’s Prison Sentence

As an initial matter, the Fourth Circuit noted that not all sentences are subject to appellate review, and as governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a), an appellate court may review a defendant’s final sentence only if it (1) “was imposed in violation of law,” (2) “was imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines,” (3) “is greater than the sentence specified in the applicable guideline range,” or (4) “was imposed for an offense for which there is no sentencing guideline and is plainly unreasonable.” However, as the Fourth Circuit noted, 18 U.S.C. § 3742(c) dictates that when a sentence is imposed under a stipulated plea agreement, the defendant cannot challenge the sentence based on the third or fourth factor unless it exceeds the sentence set forth in the plea agreement.

The Fourth Circuit quickly eliminated three of the four grounds on which Kristin Williams could seek review of her sentence under § 3742(a): the first basis was eliminated because her sentence was not imposed in violation of law; the third and fourth options were unavailable because her sentence was entered pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement that matched her sentence exactly. This left only the question of whether her sentence was imposed due to an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines.

The Fourth Circuit wrote that it has suggested on numerous occasions that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea deal is not the result of an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines by the district court, but is instead based on the parties’ agreement. While some sister circuits follow this approach, others still permit a defendant to appeal a sentence imposed under a stipulated plea if it results from an incorrect application of the guidelines. Yet, despite its previous holdings, the Fourth Circuit chose to consider the issue in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Freeman v. United States.

Reconsidering Appellate Review of Prison Sentences based on the Supreme Court’s Decision in Freeman v. United States

In Freeman, the Supreme Court held that a stipulated plea agreement can, in some circumstances, be “based on” the sentencing guidelines. Although Freeman was interpreting a different section of the federal code, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which defines a district court’s power to reduce a sentence already imposed, the issue in that case was whether a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement was “based on” sentencing guidelines and was therefore reviewable. The Supreme Court held that when a plea “agreement expressly uses a Guidelines sentencing range applicable to the charged offense to establish the term of imprisonment,” the sentence is “based on” the guidelines and is reviewable. The Fourth Circuit applied Freeman’s rule in United States v. Brown, concluding that for purposes of § 3582(c)(2), when a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement expressly uses the sentencing guidelines to establish the prison term, the sentence is reviewable.

The Fourth Circuit could find no reason not to extend this logic to the statutory subsection at issue here: “Surely, where a stipulated plea is ‘based on’ the Guidelines and reviewable in . . . subsection 3582(c)(2), it also involves an “application of” the Guidelines and is reviewable under subsection 3742(a)(2).” In addition, the Fourth Circuit found this reading to be in line with the overall operation of § 3742. The Court reasoned that because 3742(c) specifically prohibits appeals of Rule 11(c)(1)(C) sentences under paragraphs (3) and (4), it would stand to reason that appeals are permitted under paragraph (2).   The Fourth Circuit held that when a sentence is imposed pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, it may be reviewed only where the sentence is unlawful, the sentence imposed exceeds the term set forth in the plea agreement, or where the agreement expressly used the sentencing guidelines in establishing the prison term.

Kristin William’s Appeal of Her Sentence Dismissed

The Fourth Circuit ultimately found that Kristin Williams’ sentence was not “imposed as a result of an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines.” Her plea agreement did not use or make reference to a guidelines-based calculation. Thus, under the standard set forth above, her sentence was not properly reviewable, and lacking jurisdiction, the Court dismissed the attempted appeal of her sentence.