March 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: District Court Abused Discretion by Rejecting Plea Bargain Based on Appeal Waiver

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Vanderwerff on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

Timothy Vanderwerff was indicted in the District of Colorado on three child pornography-related counts: Count 1 charged him with receipt of child pornography and Counts 2 and 3 charged him with possession. Vanderwerff entered into a plea agreement with the government wherein he would plead guilty to Count 2, which carried a statutory sentencing range of zero to ten years, in exchange for dismissal of Counts 1 and 3. The plea agreement contained an appeal waiver. The district court rejected the plea agreement, citing a “tectonic shift” in jurisprudence following the Supreme Court’s decision in Lafler v. Cooper which suggested the court should be a participant in the plea bargaining process. The district court also relied on United States v. Booker to support its finding that sentencing requires a court to consider context and apply criteria instead of performing mechanical judgment. The district court suggested that some of the judges on the Tenth Circuit were not “paying attention to their obligations” in reviewing lower court decisions. The district court rejected the proposed plea agreement.

Vanderwerff sought review of the district court’s rejection of the first plea agreement, but the Tenth Circuit determined it lacked jurisdiction because the issues were premature. The parties then negotiated a new plea agreement, wherein Vanderwerff would plead guilty to Count 1 in exchange for dismissal of Counts 2 and 3. Notably, the new plea agreement did not contain an appeal waiver. The statutory sentencing range for Count 1 was five to twenty years’ imprisonment. The district court sentenced Vanderwerff to 108 months’ imprisonment, and Vanderwerff timely appealed.

On appeal, the government agreed that the district court abused its discretion in rejecting the first plea agreement. The Tenth Circuit appointed pro bono amicus counsel to independently assess the legal propriety of the district court’s sentence decision. The amicus also agreed that the district court abused its discretion. The Tenth Circuit similarly concluded the district court abused its discretion in rejecting the plea agreement based on the appeal waiver, since its decision was premised on legally erroneous and irrelevant considerations. The Tenth Circuit opined that the district court’s reading of Lafler as a basis for rejecting the plea agreement evinced a serious misunderstanding of the case. The Tenth Circuit did not read Lafler to introduce a new role for the judiciary in the plea bargaining process.

The Tenth Circuit also disagreed with the district court’s interpretation of Booker, finding nothing in the case to suggest that district courts were obligated to exercise a wider scope of discretion in evaluating plea agreements. The Tenth Circuit noted the core holding of Booker was that the Guidelines are advisory, and found the district court seriously misconstrued Booker‘s mandate, constituting an abuse of discretion. In fact, the Tenth Circuit found nothing in Booker that spoke to appellate waivers at all, much less anything that allowed the district court to restrict a defendant’s ability to knowingly and voluntarily waive his or her appellate rights.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit disapproved of the district court’s use of the § 3553(a) factors as a basis for its rejection of the appeal waiver. The Tenth Circuit found the court committed serious error by applying the sentencing factors to the entry of guilt phase. The Tenth Circuit also did not appreciate the suggestion that it was not paying attention to its obligations to review the decisions of district court judges, and noted that it had its responsibilities firmly in hand. The Tenth Circuit found that plea bargaining was strongly favored and the appellate waiver was an important bargaining tool for a defendant.

The district court’s judgment was reversed and remanded. Judge Hartz separately concurred.

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