In United States v. Malone, No. 20-12744 (Oct. 26, 2022) (Rosenbaum, Tjoflat, Moody (M.D. Fla.)), the Court, applying plain-error review, vacated Mr. Malone’s sentence and remanded for resentencing before a different district court judge.

Mr. Malone was charged with (1) three counts of wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343; (2) one count of interstate transportation of a stolen motor vehicle, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2312; and (3) one count of sale of a stolen motor vehicle, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2313.  He agreed to plead guilty to four counts in exchange for the government’s agreement to dismiss one count.  The government reserved the right to oppose a two-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1 if it received information that Mr. Malone acted inconsistently with acceptance of responsibility between the date of the plea hearing and the date of the sentencing hearing.  The government also agreed to move for a one-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility, and to recommend a sentence within the advisory Guidelines range as calculated by the court at the sentencing hearing.

The PSR recommended that Mr. Malone be denied acceptance of responsibility, which resulted in a guidelines range of 57 to 71 months’ imprisonment.  Mr. Malone objected, arguing he had accepted responsibility, and that therefore, his guidelines range should instead be 41 to 51 months’ imprisonment.  The government filed a sentencing memorandum seeking a term of imprisonment of 66 months–it did not explain its recommendation other than a general reference to the probation-recommended guidelines range and the § 3553(a) factors–and argued against any reduction at Mr. Malone’s sentencing hearing, relying on pre-plea conduct.  The government also argued against any downward variance.  The district court declined to award any deduction for acceptance of responsibility, denied Mr. Malone’s motion for a downward variance, and sentenced him to 71 months’ imprisonment.

On appeal, Mr. Malone argued that the government breached the plea agreement by relying on Mr. Malone’s pre-plea conduct to argue against acceptance of responsibility and against a sentence within the guidelines range.  The Court–reviewing for plain error because Mr. Malone did not object before the district court that the government had breached the plea agreement–agreed with Mr. Malone.  Applying the framework set forth in Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129 (2009), the Court found error, that was plain, that affected Mr. Malone’s substantial rights.  The Court also worried that the government’s “repeated, clear violations of the plea agreement” seriously affected the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the judicial proceedings.  As such, the Court remanded for resentencing according to the terms of the plea agreement before a different judge.

Judge Tjoflat dissented.  He asserted that such a claim–the government’s unobjected-to breach of a plea agreement–cannot be raised on direct appeal (because it is not an error committed by the district court), and instead must be raised in a collateral attack in order to develop a complete factual record as to why Mr. Malone’s attorney did not object.  He also asserted that the majority’s analysis was improper because it is premised on the idea that the government can withhold evidence from sentencing judges based on promises made in plea agreements.  He recommended that the Court take up en banc the issue of the government’s obligations under 18 U.S.C. § 3661 at sentencing.