EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Copping A Plea: District Of Puerto Rico Finds Prosecutorial Compliance W/Witness Request Didn't Breach Plea Deal

The vast majority of criminal cases in this country are now resolved via plea agreement rather than through a criminal trial. In the typical plea bargaining scenario, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a certain crime or crimes in exchange for the prosecutor recommending that the judge impose a certain sentence. But to what extent is the prosecutor bound to defend the plea agreement and the recommended sentence in the face of skepticism from the trial judge? That was the question addressed by the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in its recent opinion in United States v. Sevilla-Oyola, 2012 WL 642467 (D.Puerto Rico 2012).

In Sevilla-Oyola, Carlos Sevilla-Oyola reached a plea agreement with the prosecutor, who then presented that agreement to a judge. The judge then asked the prosecutor to  produce a cooperating witness to testify concerning a murder in which Sevilla-Oyola allegedly played a role. The prosecutor complied, the witness testified, and the judge used this testimony in imposing a higher sentence than the sentence agreed upon by the prosecutor and defense counsel.

After the imposition of sentence, Sevilla-Oyola appealed, claiming, inter alia, that that the government breached the plea agreement because it was "duty bound to defend [it] in all its aspects." The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico disagreed, finding that

Among other things, the agreement contains the sentence recommended by the government and warns the Defendant that the court "may impose a harsher or lesser sentence" despite the recommendation, but it remains silent on the topic of the government's response to requests by the court for witnesses or additional facts....By its own terms, the agreement disavows the existence of any "additional promises" not contained within the document and, as such, is a fully integrated agreement....We will not interpret its silence to carry an implicit promise by the government to stymy legitimate requests by this court for relevant information. Defendant got what he bargained for; the government recommended the sentence as it promised and did not breach the agreement.

Interestingly, the court then criticized the way that state courts have conducted plea bargaining, pointing

to a practice observed in state-court criminal prosecutions which, like an epidemic, is infecting federal practice in this district. The volume of criminal litigation in state court is so high that plea agreements are never or rarely ever questioned at the time of sentencing. This is creating a scenario where there is almost absolute certainty that the criminal sentence recommended by the parties is going to govern the disposition of the case. Attorneys set the sentence, the judge endorses it. Some federal practitioners are trying hard to impose that custom in federal court. That practice sets a dangerous precedent for federal court because at the federal level, district judges should strive to carry out honesty in sentencing. A recommendation as to sentencing is precisely that—a recommendation, and we advise the bar not to expect that we will rubber-stamp all kinds of plea-bargained issues and recommendations to finalize criminal cases. Federal judges should, and this judge will, look at the picture in the post-presentence report and decide the final disposition on the merits of the post-presentence report status, in light of the plea agreement. Copying the state practice is an abdication of sentencing responsibility and something we are not ready to do. Exercising full and independent sentencing authority is not grounds for recusal, the same way that exercising our sentencing prerogatives and demanding more from the government does not constitute a breach of the plea agreement. Judges in the federal system can call witnesses and even interrogate them. We are not passive observers.



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