Plea agreements within the criminal context are not uncommon. While many would assume that most criminal cases are likely to go to trial, both parties often have significant incentives to reach a plea agreement. Criminal defendants avoid the risk that they will receive the worst possible charges and sentencing from the jury and court, while prosecutors are able to more effectively manage the enormous caseloads they are often dealing with, and avoid the risk that a likely offender will return to the streets if not found guilty.
Plea agreements can take all forms and sizes, based on the strength of either party’s case. Many, however, explicitly contain waivers of appellate rights which prohibit criminal defendants from appealing most aspects of their criminal convictions. Without such waivers, prosecutors would risk agreeing to lower charges or convictions while a defendant could still appeal and overturn the conviction in its entirety.
The scope of waiver in a plea agreement is typically strictly construed, and criminal defendants must pay careful attention to the language to which they are agreeing. A recent case in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit addresses waiver of appellate rights and a criminal defendant’s efforts to appeal despite such waiver.
In United States of America v. McLaughlin, Tineka McLaughlin agreed to a plea deal that required her to plead guilty to bank fraud in exchange for a dismissal of more severe charges. As part of the plead deal, she agreed to knowingly waive all rights to appeal her conviction and sentencing other than her right to appeal a sentence in excess of the applicable sentencing advisory guidelines. In other words, appeal was only available to her if the court made an upward departure from the guidelines during her sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, the judge applied a specific sentencing enhancement to McLaughlin’s sentence and then imposed an upward departure. McLaughlin appealed.
However, McLaughlin did not appeal the upward departure; she appealed only the sentencing enhancement. In response, the United States argued that she had waived the right to appeal this issue when she signed her plea agreement, and the Fourth Circuit was asked to consider whether such rights had indeed been waived.
On appeal, McLaughlin argued that under the waiver provision, she was entitled to appeal any issue with her sentencing when the sentencing represented an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines. Here, because that was the case, she argued that it was appropriate to appeal the sentencing enhancement issue. The court disagreed, holding that this reasoning ignored the other aspects of the waiver provision, including that McLaughlin explicitly agreed to waive her right to appeal the sentence on any ground other than the upward departure. According to the court, McLaughlin’s interpretation would render this part of the waiver agreement pointless. Here, the court found that the waiver provision made good sense, allowing McLaughlin to appeal an upward departure but otherwise waiving her right. Moreover, given that McLaughlin was advised of the waiver agreement and agreed to sign it, the Court denied the appeal.
This case is a good reminder for criminal defendants that it is incredibly important that all defendants carefully review their plea agreements before signing them.. If you have been charged with a federal crime and have been offered a plea deal, it is important that you seek experienced legal representation. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients in both state and federal courts for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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