United States v. Marks, an appeal heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit, involved a defendant who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and to launder money.
Seven years after pleading guilty, his attorney contacted the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) assigned to the case and told her that his client had knowledge of two inmates who had made a key that fit various locks in the prison and planned to escape. In exchange for this information, he requested that his client receive a reduction in his sentence and that the AUSA draft a motion requesting such modification.
The AUSA did not draft the motion but did pass the information along to authorities at the prison. The two inmates who were attempting to escape were transferred to a maximum-security facility. The AUSA then told defendant's attorney that she would not be filing the motion, because he did not participate in a meaningful way in preventing the crime of escape.
Inmate moved to compel the government to honor the contract to which he asserted the parties had agreed. There was a hearing held, and the AUSA testified that prison authorities never thought an escape was actually going to happen. After hearing this testimony, the court concluded that the terms of the agreement were never specific enough to grant enforcement through what is known as specific performance.
Inmate appealed to the United States Court of Appeals. The court agreed that there was an agreement that was enforceable. The question was whether the government had acted in bad faith in refusing to file the motion. The court remanded the case for further proceedings to determine if there was a bad faith breach by the government.
As part of that hearing, defendant produced a declaration from a former deputy warden at the prison where he was held, which stated that the government's refusal to grant him credit for preventing the escape was a travesty of justice. The district court once again denied defendant's motion and found that there was no showing of bad faith.
Defendant once again appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit, which would only review the trial court's ruling on a standard of abuse of discretion. This means that the court would not review factual determinations made by the trial court and would only reverse if the court had abused its discretion. Ultimately, the court determined that there was not an abuse of discretion and affirmed the trial court's denial of defendant's motion.
As our Birmingham federal crimes attorneys can explain, drug cases are sentenced under a very harsh set of guidelines that are technically considered voluntary. This means that the court can depart from the guidelines to give what is essentially an illusion of discretion. If you are going to seek any departure from the sentencing guidelines, it is essential that you clearly understand the terms of the agreement to prevent the government from backing out on the agreement. The process by which the AUSA listens to information from a defendant is known in federal court as a debrief and is typically done after providing a limited immunity letter.
United States v. Marks, October 11, 2014, United States Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit