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United States v. Edmundson

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 5, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
TIFFANY RENEE EDMUNDSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         The Government filed a criminal complaint against Defendant Tiffany Renee Edmundson on July 30, 2012, alleging that she violated 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), ECF No. 1, and she was detained by agreement on August 10, 2012, ECF No. 8. Edmundson then was charged in a two-count Information with conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a), and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), on January 14, 2013. ECF No. 17. At her February 11, 2013 arraignment on the Information, she entered a guilty plea on both counts, and she waived an indictment. ECF Nos. 19, 20.

         Edmundson entered into a Plea Agreement, ECF No. 21, with a Sealed Supplement, ECF No. 22, and sentencing originally was set for August 12, 2013, ECF No. 23. After sentencing was rescheduled five times, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss Count Two and to Vacate Guilty Plea on Said Count, in light of Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ____, 135 S.Ct. 2551');">135 S.Ct. 2551 (2015), which the Supreme Court decided after Defendant entered into the Plea Agreement, ECF No. 38, along with a Supplement, ECF No. 39. In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that imposing an enhanced sentence under the Armed Career Criminal statute's residual clause, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), a statute similar to the § 924(c) residual clause, violated due process because it was impermissibly vague. See Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 2557.

         I postponed the sentencing yet again, set a briefing schedule on the motion, ECF Nos. 40, 43, and held a hearing on the motion on December 17, 2015, ECF No. 60. Edmundson withdrew her Motion to Vacate Guilty Plea on Count Two, I deferred my ruling on her Motion to Dismiss Count Two, and I found that the § 924(c) residual clause, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B), like that considered in Johnson, was unconstitutionally vague. Dec. 30, 2015 Am. Mem. Op. 1, ECF No. 67 (amending Dec. 23, 2015 Mem. Op., ECF No. 64). I ordered further briefing to address whether, even though Edmundson withdrew her motion to withdraw her plea of guilty to Count Two of the indictment, I had to dismiss that count because "there is no legally permissible ground for sentencing her under it." Id.

         In response, Defendant filed a Supplemental Motion to Dismiss Count Two, ECF No. 66. The Government then filed a Motion to Rescind Plea Agreement and Stay Briefing Schedule, [1] ECF No. 70, which Defendant opposed, ECF No. 74, and for which the Government filed a reply, ECF No. 77. I issued a paperless order on April 7, 2016, observing that it appeared that neither the Government nor the Defendant disagreed with the fact that, as a consequence of my December 30, 2015 ruling as to Count Two, I cannot constitutionally sentence Ms. Edmundson for that count and it must be dismissed, notwithstanding the Government's Motion to Stay Briefing Schedule. I directed any party that disagreed to provide me with a brief letter by April 19, 2016 with authority for why Count Two should not be dismissed. ECF No. 80. Neither party responded.

         I held a hearing on the parties' motions on June 15, 2016 and denied the Government's Motion, granted Defendant's Supplemental Motion, and dismissed Count Two. ECF Nos. 83, 87.[2] This Memorandum Opinion memorializes the rulings made at the motions hearing.

         The Plea Agreement

         The starting point for my analysis is the Plea Agreement itself. This is not a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea, and therefore the Court is not a party to the Plea Agreement and did not bind itself to accept any portion of it. Plea Agr. ¶ 14. As noted, Edmundson pleaded guilty to conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a), and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Plea Agr. ¶ 1. My December 2015 decision determined that "Edmundson's plea to conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery did not meet the requirements in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A) and that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B) is void for vagueness." Am. Mem. Op. 1.

         Edmundson's waiver of rights appears on pages 2-4 of the Plea Agreement. Plea Agr. ¶ 4. Among the rights that Edmundson waived was the right to appeal, with certain limitations. Id. ¶ 4(f), 12. Defendant "reserve[d] the right to appeal from any sentence above the advisory guidelines range resulting from a final offense level of 19 for Count One plus a consecutive sentence of seven years for Count Two, " and the Government "reserve[d] the right to appeal from any sentence below the advisory guidelines range resulting from a final offense level of 19 for Count One plus a consecutive sentence of seven years for Count Two." Id. ¶ 12(b). Additionally, both parties reserved the right to "appeal[] from any decision [under Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 35(a), should a sentence be imposed that resulted from arithmetical, technical, or other clear error." Id. ¶ 12(c) (emphasis added).

         The Plea Agreement includes a Factual and Advisory Guidelines Stipulation, id. ¶¶ 6-8, in which the parties noted that, by virtue of Defendant's guilty plea on the § 924(c) charge, there would be "no enhancement for brandishing the firearm, pursuant to U.S.S.G § 2K2.4, comment[] n. (2(B)(4)), " because that would be double counting, id. ¶ 6(b). Of course, if Count Two no longer is an offense for which Defendant will be sentenced, then there should be an enhancement to the guidelines offense calculation for Count One under § 2K2.4. See U.S.S.G § 2K2.4. The Plea Agreement stated that, for Count Two, "the minimum term of imprisonment is seven years, to be imposed consecutive to the sentence for Count One, because a firearm was brandished." Plea Agr. ¶ 6(d).

         In the section entitled "Obligations of the United States Attorney's Office, " the Plea Agreement obligated that office to "recommend a sentence within the applicable guidelines range for Count One, plus a consecutive seven-year sentence for Count Two." Id. ¶ 9. Yet, both parties "reserve[d] the right to bring to the Court's attention at the time of sentencing . . . all relevant information concerning the Defendant's background, character and conduct, including the conduct that is the subject of the counts of the Indictment that [the U.S. Attorney's] Office has agreed to dismiss at sentencing, "[3] and it notes that the Court may consider all such information when arriving at a sentence. Id. ¶ 10 (emphasis added).

         Paragraph 13 relieves the Government of its obligations if the Defendant "engages in conduct … which would justify a finding of obstruction of justice" or "fails to accept personal responsibility for her conduct by failing to acknowledge her guilt . . ." or violates any federal, state or local law, or "withdraw[s] her guilty plea." Id. ¶ 13.

         The Sealed Supplement[4] accompanying the Plea Agreement contains a cooperation agreement that requires the Defendant to cooperate by "fully and truthfully respond[ing] to all questions" from federal law enforcement officers, "fully and truthfully disclos[ing] all [relevant] information, " turning over relevant documents and tangible evidence, "act[ing] in an undercover capacity, " testifying before grand juries and in court proceedings, and not committing any further offenses. Sealed Supp. ¶ 1. Edmundson also agreed to "bring to [the U.S. Attorney's] Office's attention all crimes which she has committed." Id. ¶ 1(e).

         The Government agreed to inform the Probation Office and the Court of Defendant's cooperation and "all other information … relevant to sentencing, including the conduct that is the subject of any counts of the Indictment that [the U.S. Attorney's] Office has agreed to dismiss at sentencing." Id. ¶ 3. The Government also obligated itself, in its "sole discretion, " to make a § 5K1.1 motion "requesting a downward departure of up to 4 levels with respect to the sentencing guidelines range for Count One, " if Defendant "provided substantial assistance" and "fully complied with all of her obligations under her plea agreement and th[e] Sealed Supplement." Id. ¶ 4. The Sealed Supplement noted that "Defendant is not bound by the departure level recommended by [the U.S. Attorney's] Office." Id. It stated that the Government would "recommend a sentence within the applicable guidelines range for Count One and a sentence of seven years imprisonment for Count Two." Id. ¶ 5. Additionally, the Government agreed to "provide information to the State's Attorney's Office for Prince George's County" regarding Defendant's cooperation, as Defendant had "a pending probation violation proceeding in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland." Id. ¶ 6.

         In the event that Defendant breached the Sealed Supplement by "commit[ting] any further crimes, … knowingly [withholding] information; giv[ing] false, incomplete, or misleading testimony or information, " "fail[ing] to accept personal responsibility for her conduct" or "otherwise fail[ing] in any way to fulfill completely each and every one of her obligations under [the Sealed Supplement], " the Government would "be released from its obligations" and could "recommend any sentence that [it] considers appropriate, up to and including the maximum possible sentence." Id. ¶ 7. It also could prosecute Defendant "for any federal criminal violation of which [the U.S. Attorney's] Office has knowledge, including . . . the offenses charged in the other counts of the Indictment that would otherwise have been dismissed at sentencing." Id.

         Whether to Cancel the Plea Agreement

         The Government asserts two grounds for cancellation, based on its view that "[p]lea agreements are governed by contract law": Defendant's breach and mutual mistake. Gov. Mot. 3 & 9-10 n.6. It is true that, "[a]lthough the analogy may not hold in all respects, plea bargains are essentially contracts." Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 137 (2009) (citing Mabry v. Johnson, 467 U.S. 504, 508 (1984) (emphasis added)); see United States v. Davis, 689 F.3d 349, 353 (4th Cir. 2012) ("A plea agreement is ‘essentially a contract between an accused and the government' and is therefore subject to interpretation under the principles of contract law." (quoting United States v. Lewis, 633 F.3d 262, 269 (4th Cir. 2011)) (emphasis added)); United States v. Peglera, 33 F.3d 412, 413-14 (4th Cir. 1994) ("It is well-established that the interpretation of plea agreements is rooted in contract law . . . ."); United States v. Wade, 936 F.2d 169, 173 (4th Cir. 1991) ("When a defendant is able to negotiate a plea agreement that includes the government's agreement to file a motion for a downward departure under § 5K1.1, the defendant obtains rights to require the government to fulfill its promise. To those circumstances we apply the general law of contracts to determine whether the government has breached the agreement."), aff'd, 504 U.S. 181 (U.S. 1992). In the Fourth Circuit, "normal contract principles" apply to plea agreements "where the contested issues involve the content of the agreement or the authority of the parties to enter into the agreement." Plaster v. United States, 720 F.2d 340, 352 (4th Cir. 1983) (citing United States v. McIntosh, 612 F.2d 835 (4th Cir.1979)); see United States v. McIntosh, 612 F.2d 835, 837 (4th Cir. 1979) (same).

         But, as noted, "the analogy may not hold in all respects, " Puckett, 556 U.S. at 137, as "[a]nalogies to contract law in this setting are not perfect." United States v. Transfiguracion, 442 F.3d 1222, 1230 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Zweber, 913 F.2d 705, 711 (9th Cir. 1990), superseded by amendment to USSG on other grounds, as recognized in United States v. Webster, 996 F.2d 209, 211 (9th Cir. 1993)). Relevantly, the Fourth Circuit has observed that "principles of contract law, which implicate entirely different concerns of economic efficiency in a situation involving equally strong parties, may not properly be applicable to the prosecutor-defendant agreement context" in all instances. Plaster, 720 F.2d at 352. The Plaster Court observed that, in Cooper v. United States, 594 F.2d 12 (4th Cir. 1979), it had enforced a plea agreement under "principles of fundamental fairness, " even though it had not "been accepted under principles of contract law." 720 F.2d at 352; see McIntosh, 612 F.2d at 837 ("[W]here . . . some technical rule works directly to impair a defendant's personal acceptance of an offer and deny a substantial right such as effective assistance of counsel, we will distinguish the application of such rules to the facts before us."). Insofar as contract principles do apply, the court's "analysis of the plea agreement or breach thereof is conducted with greater scrutiny than in a commercial contract, " due to the implication of the "‘defendant's fundamental and constitutional rights . . . when he is induced to plead guilty by reason of a plea agreement.'" United States v. Lewis, 633 F.3d 262, 269 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting United States v. McQueen, 108 F.3d 64, 66 (4th Cir. 1996) (emphasis added)).

         Thus, I first will consider whether Defendant breached the Plea Agreement, and then I will consider whether the parties entered into the agreement based on a mutual mistake. But, ultimately, while informed by this contractual analysis, I will decide whether to cancel the Plea Agreement based on principles of fundamental fairness.

         Breach

         Under basic contract principles, material breach is grounds for cancelling an agreement. See Scruggs, 356 F.3d at545-46. Thus, the issue is whether Defendant committed a material breach by moving to dismiss Count Two. Defendant waived various rights in the Plea Agreement, including "the right to a speedy jury trial with the close assistance of competent counsel, " "the right to confront and cross-examine the government's witnesses, " "the right to testify in her own defense, " the right to refuse to testify, " and "the right to appeal the verdict and the Court's pretrial and trial decisions on the admissibility of evidence." See Plea Agr. 2-4. She waived her rights to appeal, including specifically her right to appeal her conviction and "whatever sentence is imposed, " except she explicitly did not waive her "right to appeal from any sentence above the advisory guidelines range resulting from a final offense level of 19 for Count One plus a consecutive sentence of seven years for Count Two." Id. at 6. And she explicitly did not waive her right to move to correct or amend her sentence if it resulted from clear error, or to appeal a sentence resulting from clear error. Id. Notably, Defendant did not waive the right to file a motion to dismiss to challenge the Court's jurisdiction to convict or sentence her under the terms of the Plea Agreement. This suggests that she retained her right to file such a motion and did not breach the agreement by moving to dismiss on this ground. See United States v. Williams, 811 F.3d 621, 624 (4th Cir. 2016) (concluding that a statute that "specifically prohibits appeals" under two paragraphs of a subsection, allows ...


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