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Tenth Circuit Announces District Court Abused Discretion by Imposing Harsher Sentence Based on Defendant’s Decision to Plead Guilty Without Plea Agreement

by David M. Reutter

In a case of first impression in any circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), it was procedurally unreasonable for the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas to impose a harsher sentence upon a defendant based on her decision to enter an open plea rather than reach a plea agreement.

Leroya Cozad was indicted on a single charge of aiding and abetting the making of counterfeit currency. During plea negotiations, she offered to plead guilty in exchange for the Government’s recommendation that she be sentenced to 48 months of probation. The Government countered with an offer to recommend a prison sentence at the low end of the Sentencing Guidelines range. Cozad declined and entered an open plea. The presentence investigation report recommended a sentence between 24 and 30 months under the Sentencing Guidelines.

At sentencing, Cozad sought probation, and the Government recommended a 24-month prison sentence.

The district court rejected both recommendations. “[I]n practice one of the factors I’ve used to lean against a low-end guideline range are defendants who submit a plea without a plea agreement … it’s always been my practice to say if someone agrees to a plea agreement, the additional conditions that are obtained in that, they’re entitled to additional consideration, which is where I start at a low-end guideline range,” the Court said.

“[W]ithout a plea agreement … I have always started with looking more at the mid-tier guideline range,” the Court continued. “In this case … it’s my conclusion that … in light of matters that I’ve just discussed overall, that a low-end guideline range sentence is not appropriate.”

The Court sentence Cozad to 27 months in prison. Her counsel objected, asserting it was procedurally unreasonable to base its sentence on her choice to not enter a plea agreement. The district court disagreed, and Cozad appealed.

The Court began its discussion by stating that “It is clear that the district court sentenced Ms. Cozad more harshly than it otherwise would have but for her decision to plead guilty without entering into an agreement with the government.”  Whether it is permissible for the district court to do so “appears to be a question of first impression in this or any other circuit,” the Court observed.

The Court stated that sentencing courts commit procedural error when a sentence is based on a factor falling outside the scope of the considerations enumerated in § 3553(a). United States v. Smart, 518 F.3d 800 (10th Cir. 2008). Whether a defendant enters an open plea or enters a plea agreement is not an enumerated consideration in § 3553(a), the Court noted. See § 3553(a). Although courts liberally interpret § 3553(a), United States v. Henson, 9 F.4th 1258 (10th Cir. 2021), they don’t have unlimited discretion regarding the facts relied upon at sentencing. See United States v. Story, 635 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2011). 

“[W]e do not see how the fact of a defendant’s open plea, standing alone, bears any meaningful relationship to the § 3553(a) factors,” the Court said. The plea decision says nothing about a defendant’s “history and characteristics,” doesn’t provide any insight into the defendant’s character, and doesn’t provide the district court with any information that would aid it in deciding the punishment necessary to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in § 3553(a)(2), the Court explained. It stated that “[t]o penalize a defendant based on the absence of a plea agreement alone is arbitrary.”

The Court rejected the Government’s argument that courts should be permitted to sentence a defendant more harshly for not accepting a plea agreement in order to provide a “compelling reason” for defendants to enter plea agreements. “[I]t is the role of the government, not the court, to provide a defendant with “compelling reasons” for entering into a plea agreement, “the Court said.

The Court stated that under § 3553(a) courts are not to impose any more punishment than is needed to comply with the four penological goas enumerated in § 3553(a)(2), adding that when a sentence is imposed to achieve some other purpose that sentence is unlawful. State v. Burgos, 276 F.3d 1284 (11th Cir. 2001). “We do not see how any of the permissible aims of sentencing are advanced by distinguishing between defendants based on the manner in which they plead guilty,” the Court concluded.

The Court held “that, under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), it was procedurally unreasonable for the district court to impose a harsher sentence on Ms. Cozad based on her decision to enter an open plea.” Thus, the district court abused its discretion, according to the Court.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. See: United State v. Cozad, 21 F.4th 1259 (10th Cir. 2022). 

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Related legal cases

United State v. Cozad

United States v. Story



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