NJ FEDERAL COURT CRIMINAL SENTENCING: THIRD CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS RULES THAT ENFORCEMENT OF PLEA AGREEMENTS SUBJECT TO BASIC CONTRACT PRINCIPLES; DECISION IS APPLICABLE TO UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURTS FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY

New Jersey Criminal Lawyers Schwartz Posnock

United States v. Davenport, a recent federal sentencing decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, held that the Government did not breach the terms of a defendant’s plea agreement by arguing for a two-level enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. The Court analyzed the facts of the case using basic contract principles. This ruling applies to all United States District Courts in New Jersey.

In Davenport, the defendant entered a guilty plea in the United States District Court to Conspiracy to Distribute Narcotics. At sentencing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued that United States Sentencing Guideline (USSG) § 2D1.1(b)(1), for possessing a firearm in connection with the underlying offense, was applicable. The defendant objected to the application of this federal criminal sentencing Guideline, since, during the plea negotiations, the clause “and the defendant possessed a firearm” was stricken from the plea agreement. The defendant argued that the stricken provision precluded the Government from pursuing a gun enhancement at sentencing.

The Court decided upon a three-step analysis to determine whether there has been a breach of a federal criminal plea agreement. First, it must identify the terms of the agreement and the government’s alleged improper conduct. Second, the court must determine whether the government has violated its obligations under that agreement. And if it has, they must fashion the proper remedy.

The Court stated: “At the outset, we determine “whether the government’s conduct is inconsistent with what was reasonably understood by the defendant when entering the plea of guilty.” “Reasonably understood” is a “purely objective” standard governed by the common law of contract. Specifically, we look to the plain meaning of the plea agreement and eschew a “rigidly literal” interpretation of it. And we give the benefit of any doubt to the defendant, given the government’s “tremendous bargaining power” in negotiating such plea agreements.”

“Once the plea agreement has been made, the government does not have to endorse its terms “enthusiastically,” but it is expected to “adhere strictly to the terms of the bargain it strikes,” and we will hold the government to that bargain.”

In rejecting the defendant’s argument and affirming the judgment of the United States District Court, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that removal of the gun enhancement meant simply that the parties no longer jointly agreed on that specific recommendation. It did not, as the defendant claimed, mean that the parties had jointly agreed that the Government would be barred from bringing the gun enhancement to the Court’s attention at sentencing. “Davenport’s argument ignores the other provisions of the plea agreement that explicitly permit the Government to do just that.”
For individuals who are facing federal criminal prosecution or sentencing in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, or state criminal prosecution or sentencing in the criminal courts of New Jersey, or who are appealing their criminal matters before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the New Jersey Appellate Division, or the Supreme Court of New Jersey, it is critical to have an experienced federal and state New Jersey criminal defense attorney represent you. The experienced criminal defense lawyers of Schwartz & Posnock appear in all Federal Courts of New Jersey, as well as the State and Municipal criminal courts in New Jersey, and have convenient locations in Monmouth County (Eatontown), Essex County (Livingston), Union County (Linden), and Middlesex County (East Brunswick). Call us at 732-544-1460 or email us at info@schwartzposnock.com to schedule an appointment.

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