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D.C. Circuit: Ambiguous Plea Agreement Requires Interpretation in Favor of Defendant

The Court’s April 27, 2021, opinion was the second time it resolved an appeal brought by Antonio Moreno-Membache. He was extradited from Columbia after a joint investigation between the Columbian and American governments. The investigation ensued after a “go-fast” boat was interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which resulted in the confiscation of 220 kilograms of cocaine and 235 kilograms of marijuana.

Moreno-Membache pleaded guilty in January 2016 to conspiracy to “knowingly and intentionally distribute, and possess with intent to distribute … on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States” both (i) five kilograms or more of cocaine and (ii) 100 kilograms or more of marijuana. The charges were a violation of the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act.

The Maritime Drug Act carries a minimum sentence of ten years in prison. Another law, known as the Safety Valve, allows U.S. district courts to approve sentences below the minimum if the offense (i) did not result in death or serious injury to any person, and the defendant (ii) does not have a significant criminal history, (iii) has not used or threatened violence or possessed a firearm or other dangerous weapon in connection with the offense, (iv) is not an “organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines,” and (v) truthfully provides all relevant information and evidence concerning the offense to the government. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1)-(5).

Moreno-Membache’s plea agreement was a “C-Plea,” which makes the Government’s recommended sentence “binding on the court ‘once the court accepts the plea agreement [.]’” Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011). Under the agreement, the Government agreed to a sentence of 120 months, which left the court the option to impose that sentence or a lesser sentence under the Safety Valve.

In paragraph nine of the plea agreement drafted by the Government, Moreno-Membache expressly reserved his ability to seek relief from the mandatory minimum sentence under the Safety Valve provision. That same paragraph, however, also provided that the Government preserved its right to argue the Safety Valve provision is inapplicable to Moreno-Membache and that he does not meet its conditions for application.

The district court initially ruled the Safety Valve provision had no application to the Maritime Drug Act under which Moreno-Membache had entered his plea. That ruling was reversed, with the D.C Circuit holding it does apply to such offenses. United States v. Mosquero-Murillo, 902 F.3d 24 (D.D.C. 2016).

On remand, the district court turned to Moreno-Membache’s request for relief under the Safety Valve provision. It focused on two criteria to find him ineligible: whether Moreno-Membache performed some leadership or leadership role in the offense and whether he possessed a weapon in conjunction with the crime.

Moreno-Membache claimed the Government expressly surrendered its right to argue he had played such a role when it “agree[d] not to seek any of the adjustments set out” in the Sentencing Guidelines. The Government then presented evidence that Moreno-Membache was ineligible for relief under the Safety Valve provision because of his alleged supervisory or managerial role in the offense.

The district court found that he was indeed ineligible because of his alleged leadership status. It also found he possessed a weapon. The court then imposed the mandatory 120-month sentence. Moreno-Membache appealed.

The D.C. Circuit started by pointing out that breach of a plea agreement provision is reviewed under the principles of contract law. United States v. Henry, 758 F.3d 427 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Constitutional principles dictate that any ambiguities in a plea agreement must be construed against the Government. In re Sealed Case, 702 F.3d 59 (D.C. Cir. 2012).

The Court found that the ambiguous wording of the plea agreement “foreclosed the government from pursuing” an argument that Moreno-Membache was not eligible for Safety Valve relief due to a leadership role. The Government conceded the language of the provision in question was “inelegantly drafted.” The Court characterized that admission as “a deft way of admitting that the agreement was unclear.”

The Court stated that Moreno-Membache reasonably read that provision to preclude the Government from arguing his Safety Valve eligibility. “With so much at stake for the defendant, it is not too much to hold the government that drafted the plea agreement responsible for the misunderstanding that arose from a confusing, unclear into hollow promise in the agreement,” the Court wrote in remanding for resentencing without evidence relating to Moreno-Membache’s alleged leadership role.

The Court reversed the district court’s ruling on the firearm issue as well because the lower court based its finding of facilitation on Moreno-Membache’s supervisory role, which the Court rejected. As a result, the Court explained that it was “unable to disentangle the district court’s firearm determination from the government’s arguments in breach of the plea agreement asserting Moreno-Membache’s supervisory or managerial position.” Thus, in the interests of justice, the Court concluded that the case should be remanded so that the district court can “make an independent determination regarding the firearm criterion, uninfluenced in any way by any of the government’s improper argument or evidence presented” regarding Moreno-Membache’s alleged supervisory or managerial status.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court, vacated the sentences, and remanded to the district court for further proceeding consistent with its opinion. See: United States v. Moreno-Membache, 995 F.3d 249 (D.C. Cir. 2021). 

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