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Did Surprise Gun Crime Sentence Mean the Accused Didn't Agree?

Whenever someone is accused of a crime, one of the most important choices is whether to take the case to trial or to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor. When defendants are considering plea deals, it's vital that they fully understand the consequences of pleading guilty and what sentence reduction they can expect.

That was unfortunately not the case for one defendant who agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence reduction in a federal weapons offense case. He admitted that he had provided false information to buy guns that were later recovered from people (probably people with felony convictions) who were prohibited from possessing firearms. In exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of lying to gun dealers, he expected to receive a three-level reduction in the applicable sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines.

Instead, because he had refused to waive his right to appeal his sentence, the prosecutor only asked the judge for a two-level sentence reduction, increasing his sentence from one that might have been covered by time already served before trial to one that meant 1-1/2 years in federal prison.

The problem appears to have been a misunderstanding of a specific section of sentencing law that had, at one time, made the three-level sentencing reduction mandatory when defendants take responsibility for their offenses. Unfortunately, the law was amended in 2004, and this defendant and his lawyer apparently did not know that. The amendment, several federal circuits have ruled, gives prosecutors the option of asking for less of a reduction.

So far, the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th federal appellate circuits have held that prosecutors aren't required to offer the three-level reduction, while the 2nd and 4th circuits have ruled that they do. The 11th circuit, which includes Florida, has not yet issued an opinion.

No contract is valid unless there is a "meeting of the minds" between the parties. In the case of plea agreements, unfortunately, defendants often don't realize that they didn't fully understand the deal until it's too late because they've already pled guilty.

I have seen an example of a defendant pleading guilty to one count of an indictment believing that his sentence guideline score will not be impacted by the other charges that are to be dismissed per the plea agreement. The lawyer that represented the defendant had limited federal court experience and his advice was incorrect. Unfortunately this resulted in the defendant receiving a harsher sentence because the other crimes (even though dismissed) are considered relevant conduct and they impact the sentencing guidelines.

If you're ever accused of a federal gun crime or any federal offense and are considering a plea bargain, you need an attorney with experience in federal criminal defense to ensure you understand exactly what you can expect.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Leeway Upheld in Gun Straw Buyer's Sentencing," Joseph Celentino, April 15, 2013