United States v. Woltmann, No. 10-413 (2d Cir. July 6, 2010) (Jacobs, Winter, Walker, CJJ)
Once again, Judge Platt’s unconventional way of doing business has resulted in a sentencing remand to a different judge. Here, the issue was his treating the guideline range in a plea agreement as binding, while ignoring a 5K1.1 letter and § 3553(a). This prompted the circuit to hold that the plea agreement’s appellate waiver was unenforceable and vacate the sentence.
Pursuant to a cooperation agreement, Gary Woltmann pled guilty to tax fraud, then provided substantial assistance to the government in the successful prosecution of another tax case. The government duly filed at 5K1.1 letter that expressly asked for a sentence below the 18 to 24 month guideline range. But Judge Platt refused to consider the letter, viewing it as an effort to repudiate the plea agreement, in which Woltmann had agreed not to appeal a sentence of 27 months’ imprisonment or less. To the judge, that provision trumped both the 5K1.1 letter and the remaining § 3553(a) factors. He sentenced Woltmann to 18 months’ imprisonment, the bottom of the range.
The Circuit’s Ruling
After Woltmann filed a notice of appeal, the government moved to dismiss based on the plea agreement’s appeal waiver. Construing the plea agreement under “ordinary contract principles” but with “special due process concerns for fairness,” the court found the waiver unenforceable.
Appeals waivers are ordinarily enforceable without much controversy. But the circuit will not enforce one if the sentence was “reached in a manner that the plea agreement did not anticipate” or where the sentencing court “failed to enunciate any rationale for the defendant’s sentence, thus amounting to an abdication of judicial responsibility.” Both of these circumstances were present here.
First, the judge insisted on relying on the guideline range in the agreement – calling the agreement, amongst other things, “the controlling instrument” – notwithstanding “our law that such reliance is misplaced.” By misreading the plea agreement Judge Platt imposed a sentence “inconsistent with the parties’ expectations,” since the agreement, by its unambiguous terms, contemplated that the sentence would be imposed only after consideration of the 5K1.1 letter and § 3553(a). It was accordingly improper for the judge to reject the 5K1.1 letter because he felt it “repudiated” the agreement. In short, the judge “refused to consider the 5K1.1 motion and the § 3553(a) factors on the ground that the appeal waiver and the sentencing range in the [a]greement obviated anything else.” This rendered the appeal waiver unenforceable.
Judge Platt’s belief that the plea agreement constituted an “enforceable concession by Woltmann that any sentence at or below 27 months was appropriate” was likewise error. It amounted to an abdication of judicial responsibility – a second reason to deem the appeal waiver unenforceable.
Finally, the circuit ordered that the case be remanded to a different judge for resentencing, citing (1) the “scorn with which Judge Platt approached the matters pertaining to sentencing” (2) his “pattern of error regarding 5K1.1 letters” and (3) the fact that reassignment would not waste resources because all that the court need do on remand is what “courts do as a matter of routine.”