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Fourth Circuit Rules Government Breached Plea Agreement When It Failed to Honor Its Drug Conduct Stipulation at Sentencing

by Chad Marks

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Government breached its plea agreement with the defendant by failing to honor its drug conduct stipulation at sentencing and failing to advocate for acceptance of its agreement after the Government learned its assumption about the substance in question was incorrect at the time the plea agreement was executed.

John Sylvester Edgell was charged with various crimes related to methamphetamine and a firearm in a West Virginia federal court. As a result of those charges, he entered into a stipulated plea agreement with the Government. He entered a plea of guilty to one count of possessing a firearm as an unlawful drug user and one count of distributing methamphetamine.

In exchange for his plea of guilty to the two counts, the Government agreed to a stipulation that Edgell’s drug conduct involved less than five grams of substances containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine. That amount called for an advisory sentencing range between 10-16 months incarceration.

After the agreement was signed, the Government received lab reports, which were requested prior to entering into the plea agreement but not yet returned at the time of execution, that showed the substances attributed to Edgell were actual methamphetamine. The Government shared those findings with the probation department who in turn included that information in the presentence report that was turned over to the court. This changed Edgell’s advisory sentencing range from 10-16 months to 30-37 months. During the sentencing hearing, the Government changed course from its earlier stipulated agreement and advocated for a sentence consistent with the elevated range. The court agreed with the Government and imposed a term of 30 months.

Edgell appealed to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that the Government failed to honor its agreement at sentencing by advocating for a sentence inconsistent with the bargain it entered into. The Court agreed with that argument, finding that the Government breached its agreement by denying Edgell the benefit of his bargain.

Since Edgell didn’t challenge the Government’s alleged breach before the district court, the Fourth Circuit reviewed his claim for plain error. United States v. Tate. 845 F.3d 571 (4th Cir. 2017). Pursuant to United States v. Dawson, 587 F.3d 640 (4th Cir. 2009), Edgell was required to meet the high standard of plain error by showing that the Government plainly breached its plea agreement and that the breach both affected his substantial rights and called into question the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. The Court ruled that Edgell was able to meet this rigorous standard.

Plea agreements are grounded in contract law, and as with any contract, each party is entitled to receive the benefit of his bargain. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 made this clear, “When a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be a part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be followed.” Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257.

However, the Court explained that the Government has a “duty of candor to the court” to provide relevant information about the defendant such as background, criminal record, and other pertinent information that will enable the court to exercise its discretion in sentencing. United States v. Crisp, 817 F.2d 256 (4th Cir. 1987). A plea agreement does not supersede that duty of candor. Id. 

But the Court further explained that the Government “may not hide behind this duty to advocate a position that contradicts its promises in a plea agreement,” quoting the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Munoz, 408 F.3d 222 (5th Cir. 2005). Citing to the First Circuit in United States v. Saxena, 229 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2000), in which this precise question was at issue, the Fourth Circuit instructed that the Government must “carefully balance its duty of candor … with the sometimes competing—but equally solemn—duty to honor its commitments under a plea agreement.” Finally, the Court explained that the other Circuit Courts of Appeals that have addressed this issue agree that the required balance is achieved when the Government makes the necessary disclosures to the court while continuing to “advocate for acceptance of the agreement.” (quoting the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Casillas, 853 F.3d 215 (5th Cir. 2017).   

Turning to the facts of the present case, the Court concluded that the Government failed to strike the necessary balance and thus breached its plea agreement by failing “to honor its drug conduct stipulation.” Not only did the Government fail to ask the sentencing court for a downward variance, but it also actively “undermined the plea agreement by requesting a sentence inconsistent with its stipulation….” 

Next, the Court addressed the prejudice prong of the plain error analysis. The Court found that Edgell was prejudiced based on the Government’s conduct as he was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment, which far exceeded the sentencing range to which he bargained for.

Accordingly, the Court ruled that the Government breached its plea agreement and vacated for resentencing before a different judge. See: United States v. Edgell, 914 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2019). 

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