Fourth Circuit Rules Sentencing Error Substantially Affected Defendants Rights

In United States v. Lewis, the Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence imposed on Lewis because the district court's sentencing error was not merely harmless and substantially affected his rights.

Lewis entered into a Plea Agreement whereby he agreed to plead guilty to a charge of witness tampering. The parties agreed that the sentence "shall be served concurrent with the state sentence [Lewis] is currently serving." At the sentencing hearing, the Judge instead imposed a sentence of 46 months to be served consecutively with a state sentence. After the sentence was announced, Lewis's attorney objected to the sentences being served consecutively and not concurrently as previously agreed. At the sentencing hearing, the district court did not expressly accept or reject the Plea Agreement, and it did not address the questions of whether Lewis should have the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea, now that the sentence imposed differed from what was previously agreed.

On appeal, Lewis contended that the concurrent sentence provision was binding on the district court and he should have been given an opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea after the Judge changed the terms of the Plea Agreement. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure governs the plea process in Federal Court. If a Court accepts a guilty plea, and thereafter decides to reject the underlying plea agreement containing provisions relating to the a specific sentence or sentencing range, the Court must, on the record, comply with Rule 11(c)(5) and provide an opportunity for the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. When the Judge changed the agreed upon sentence, the Judge was obligated to afford Lewis an opportunity to withdraw his previous guilty plea. By failing to do so, the Court's error substantially affected the rights of Lewis.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that the District Court's sentencing error was not a harmless error but substantially affected Lewis' rights, vacated the sentence rendered against Lewis, and remanded the case for proper sentencing.

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