USA v. Rea-Beltran, 04-2305.  Upon being charged with illegal re-entry, see 8 U.S.C. § 1326, and use of a false passport, see 18 U.S.C. § 1546(a), Rea-Beltran entered into a plea agreement with the Government, which was presented to the district court. However, the district court, unsatisfied that Mr. Rea-Beltran had established a factual basis for his guilty plea, rejected it and ordered trial. Rea-Beltran then was convicted by a jury of illegal re-entry and use of a false passport; he was sentenced to 120 months’ incarceration. 

Rea-Beltran appeals whether the district court should have allowed him to plead guilty.

It is well-established that a criminal defendant has "no absolute right to have a guilty plea accepted." Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971). Even when presented with a constitutionally valid plea attempt, a court retains a large measure of discretion to decide whether a guilty plea is appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case. See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 38 n.11 (1970).

To guide the exercise of this discretion, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 requires that an extensive plea colloquy take place between the defendant and the district court before the entry of a guilty plea. The primary purpose of the colloquy is to safeguard against the hasty acceptance of guilty pleas that are not made in a knowing and voluntary fashion. Thus, the rule instructs the court, in conducting the colloquy, to make sure that the defendant understands the trial rights that he is waiving, the nature of the charge, the possible penalties, his right to appeal and the court’s discretion to depart from the Sentencing Guidelines. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b)(1), (2).

In addition to the "knowing and voluntary" inquiry, Rule 11 requires the district court to satisfy itself that a "factual basis" exists for the guilty plea. Id. 11(b)(3). The factual basis need not arise only from the defendant’s admissions, however; we have held that the court "may find the factual basis from anything that appears on the record, which includes the government’s proffer." United States v. Musa, 946 F.2d 1297, 1302 (7th Cir. 1991)

To facilitate meaningful appellate review and "foster the sound exercise of judicial discretion," we require that courts state on the record "a sound reason" for rejecting a plea. United States v. Kraus, 137 F.3d 447, 453 (7th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). Failure to do so requires reversal.

Here, the district court’s rejection of Rea-Beltran’s guilty plea appears to have rested on the legal misapprehension that Mr. Rea-Beltran would be innocent of illegal re-entry if he had thought that his re-entry was permitted. As we just have explained, Rea-Beltran’s mistaken belief would offer him no defense to the charge of violating § 1326(a). Thus, in light of the court’s misunderstanding of the law, we have no choice but to find an abuse of discretion in the court’s refusal to accept Rea-Beltran’s guilty plea; " ‘[a] district court by definition abuses its discretion when it makes an error of law.’ " United States v. McMutuary, 217 F.3d 477, 483 (7th Cir. 2000) (alteration in original) (quoting Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 100 (1996)).

For the foregoing reasons, the 7th Circuit vacates Mr. Rea-Beltran’s conviction and remand with instructions to permit Mr. ReaBeltran to offer a guilty plea on the terms originally agreed to by the Government.

USA v. Wallace, 05-3675.  In this appeal, the 7th Circuit again confronts the question of the proper approach to appellate review of the reasonableness of a federal sentence. Wallace pleaded guilty to wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1343. Despite the fact that the Sentencing Guidelines advise that a term between 24 and 30 months is appropriate for Wallace, the district court judge decided that the reasonable sentence for Wallace was a significantly more lenient one: three years’ probation plus a $2,000 fine. 

HELD:  the 7th Circuit concludes that the district court failed adequately to justify such a significant deviation from the recommended guideline range. 

The district court judge accepted Wallace’s argument that the guidelines overstated the gravity of his crime. The district court gave Wallace a "World Series Break" consistent with § 3553(a)(1).  The district court considered Wallace’s  history and personal characteristics and could not "help but be impressed" that in spite of a difficult childhood, psychological problems, and a gambling addiction, he had "really had an exemplary life until he faltered and did this one ridiculous, stupid crime."

The 7th Circuit finds that after Booker the concept of "departures" is outmoded. United States v. Arnaout, 431 F.3d 994, 1003 (7th Cir. 2005).  Two things are critical: first, whether the district court’s choice of sentence is adequately reasoned in light of the § 3553(a) factors, and second, whether the sentence can ultimately be deemed a reasonable one.   The substantive inquiry looks at the sentence imposed, not at all the other hypothetical sentences that might have been chosen.

In short, reasonableness is something that must be assessed at retail; wholesale conclusions that are nothing but disagreements with the guidelines are impermissible.  Although the court’s review of Wallace’s individual traits was helpful, we are troubled by the fact that the judge said that she thought that culpability should be measured by actual loss rather than intended loss. This was not an appropriate consideration, as the guidelines have already made the judgment that intended loss is what counts. See U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1, cmt. n.3(A).   

In closing, the district court acknowledged that it was giving Wallace a significant break-a "World Series" break, in fact. Such a break requires, we hold, a "World Series" explanation.  Reversed and Remanded.

For more about attorney Michael J. Petro, visit www.mjpetro.com .

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