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Criminal case negotiations – Precision is essential

Federal drug lawyer on importance of precision in plea agreements

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Settlement negotiations are an essential part of most criminal defense work, whether the negotiations seek an outright dismissal, continuance for possible dismissal with or without dismissal conditions, or any other number of resolutions right up to convictions involving amended or dropped charges and/or agreements as to sentencing or caps on sentencing. Not all cases settle. If a case goes to trial, that usually indicates that settlement efforts were attempted but unsuccessful.

Brandon Tate recently learned about the importance of precision in written guilty plea agreements. U.S. v. Tate, ___ F. 3d ___ (4th. Cir., Jan. 11, 2017). Tate entered into a federal drug felony guilty plea, whereby the prosecution agreed to recommend the low end of the “applicable [voluntary federal sentencing] guideline range”. Unfortunately, Tate’s lawyer did not obtain a written definition of “applicable guideline range” in the plea agreement, if a definition was sought at all.

As a result, Tate disagreed that the judge had determined a sentencing guidelines range that was higher than called for by the sentencing guidelines, but the prosecutor simply asked for a sentence at the low end of the guidelines range determined by the trial judge. The Fourth Circuit affirmed that said sentencing recommendation satisfied the prosecutor’s plea agreement obligations.

The ideal approach would have been for Tate’s lawyer to have gotten such a written definition of “applicable guideline range” as “the judge’s calculated guidelines or the correct guidelines, whichever is lower.”

Tate confirms that contract law applies to plea negotiations. In applying contract law, Tate found no breach by the prosecution of its obligations under the plea agreement as to sentencing.