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United States v. Cobb

October 26, 2009



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKAY, Circuit Judge.


Before HARTZ, HOLLOWAY, and McKAY, Circuit Judges.

After the Sentencing Commission retroactively applied Amendment 706's modifications to the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines, the defendant, Jeffrey Scott Cobb, filed a motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). However, the court dismissed Defendant's motion for lack of jurisdiction. Specifically, the court ruled that because Defendant's sentence was based on a plea entered pursuant to Rule 11(e)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (precursor to the current Rule 11(c)(1)(c)) rather than on the sentencing guidelines, the court lacked authority to reduce Defendant's sentence. Defendant appeals, arguing his sentence was based on the guidelines because the parties based the plea agreement on the properly computed guideline range, and the stipulated sentence fell within this range. Because we find the court had authority to reduce Defendant's sentence under § 3582(c)(2), we reverse the district court's judgment and remand this case.


In March 1999, Defendant was charged with four offenses relating to the distribution of crack cocaine. He ultimately pled guilty to possessing 1000.5 grams of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute it. During the plea process, the parties entered into two Rule 11(e)(1)(C) agreements. In the first, they stipulated to a sentence at the bottom of the range specified in the sentencing guidelines-a range that contemplated a one-level downward departure based upon U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1. But when the parties' plans under § 5K1.1 broke down, Defendant moved to withdraw his guilty plea so that he could plead guilty under a different Rule 11 agreement. The court granted this request.

In the second Rule 11 agreement, the parties stipulated to a sentence at the bottom of the guideline range, as they had in the first. However, the range contemplated in this agreement included no downward departure. The agreement specified that under the sentencing guidelines, Defendant's offense level was thirty-three and he fell within a criminal history category of III, so his sentencing range was 168 to 210 months. Like the first agreement, the second agreement stipulated that sentencing would be "determined by application of the sentencing guidelines." (Vol. 1, Doc. 70 at 5.) The agreement also noted that the stipulated sentence of 168 months was "the bottom of the applicable guideline range." (Id. at 2.)

At the change-of-plea hearing relating to the second plea agreement, the court also observed that the parties were agreeing to a sentence at the bottom of the guideline range. The judge informed Defendant that the calculated range was an "estimate how these Guidelines apply to the circumstances of your case so as to define your sentence within a range of months." (Vol. 3 at 10.) The court then described the presentence report and objection processes, noting that its "duty" at sentencing would be to apply the guidelines. (Id. at 11.)

The presentence report specified the same guideline range as contained in the second agreement, finding the calculation accounted for all relevant conduct. At sentencing, the court also agreed with the guideline computation, finding Defendant's offense level to be thirty-three and his criminal history category to be III. The court indicated that it would impose a sentence with the range of 168 to 210 months, noting there was "no reason to depart from the Guideline range." (Vol. 4 at 3.) Ultimately, the court imposed a sentence of 168 months after accepting the Rule 11 agreement. The subsequent judgment explained that the "sentence is within the guideline range." (Vol. 1, Doc. 76 at 7.)

After the United States Sentencing Commission amended the drug quantity table associated with § 2D1.1(c) of the sentencing guidelines, reducing by two levels the base offense levels of crack cocaine-related offenses, see U.S.S.G. App. C, Amend. 706, Defendant filed a motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), requesting a hearing and asking the court to reduce his sentence. Under the modified range, Defendant's offense level would drop to thirty-one and his guideline range would be 135 to 168 months. Defendant asked for a sentence at the bottom of the modified range, arguing that his plea agreement was tethered to the guidelines, so his sentence was necessarily based upon them. The government responded, contending that because the court imposed the sentence pursuant to the parties' Rule 11 stipulation to a specific number of months, the sentence was not guideline-based.

At the § 3582 hearing, the parties' arguments continued in much the same vein. Defense counsel argued the stipulated sentence was a product of the guidelines because its negotiation was based on the guidelines and their mandatory nature at the time. It "was the lowest number that legally-at that time legally anybody could do." (Vol. 5 at 13.) The prosecutor argued against a reduced sentence, but acknowledged that the parties had stipulated to a sentence at "the low end of the guidelines." (Id. at 19.) In addition, he admitted that the guidelines directed the range of sentencing options: "if the Guidelines had been a different number . . . probably the Plea Agreement would have been a different number." (Id.) The court ultimately found that it lacked the power to reduce the sentence, concluding that "as a matter of fact and law" the sentence was not based upon the guideline range. (Id. at 28.) Specifically, the court noted that when faced with Rule 11 pleas, it reviewed all of the information and considered the guideline range before accepting the plea. However, the court also considered itself to have a black and white choice of accepting or rejecting the plea, without injecting itself into the process. On those grounds, the court denied Defendant's § 3582 motion.


Although this case emanates from a familiar area of law, it presents a significantly different question-one not yet addressed by this court. Defendant argues that because his sentence was based on a qualifying sentencing range as statutorily required, the court erred in concluding it lacked authority to decrease his sentence under § 3582. Neither United States v. Trujeque, 100 F.3d 869 (10th Cir. 1996), nor our other cases have addressed specifically the "based on a sentencing range" language of § 3582(c)(2) as it relates to plea negotiations under Rule 11. Because the key issue on appeal is the scope of a district court's authority in a proceeding under § 3582, we conduct de novo review. United States v. Rhoades, 549 F.3d 833, 837 (10th Cir. 2008).

Under § 3582, a court can only modify a term of imprisonment upon a defendant's motion where the defendant has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 994(o)." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) (emphasis added). The core of Defendant's argument is that although the court accepted the parties' Rule 11 agreement, the agreement itself called for a sentence within the guideline range and the parties' negotiations centered on the guideline range. The plea agreement simply dictated the sentence ...

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