Fourth Circuit Upholds Sentence in Firearms Case Despite Misstatements of Mandatory Minimum by Prosecutor and Judge at Sentencing – U.S. v. Davis

Both the prosecutor and the judge provided incorrect information to a defendant, on at least two occasions, regarding the mandatory minimum sentence associated with a guilty plea. When the court imposed a higher sentence in accordance with the actual language of the statute, the defendant objected and later appealed. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in United States v. Davis, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. 2012), affirmed the trial court’s sentence, holding that the government did not breach its plea agreement by incorrectly advising the defendant of the mandatory minimum sentence. It declined to enforce the defendant’s waiver of appeal, but denied his other points of appeal. In a concurring opinion, one justice concluded that the government did in fact breach the plea agreement, but concurred that the sentence should be affirmed.

The government charged William Davis with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years when a defendant has three prior felony convictions at the state level. The government, concluding that Davis met the ACCA standard, advised him in a plea agreement that the ACCA had a mandatory minimum of ten, not fifteen, years. The court additionally misinformed Davis of a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence twice during his plea hearing. The presentence report, issued after the court accepted Davis’ guilty plea, included a recommendation of a fifteen-year sentence.

Davis objected to the fifteen-year sentence at his sentencing hearing, arguing that his prior convictions did not qualify under the ACCA. He did not raise a claim for breach of the plea agreement at this time. The court sentenced him to 180 months in prison. Davis later filed a pro se petition to challenge the sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 2255 and obtained the right to appeal. He reiterated his ACCA objections in his appeal and added a claim that the government breached its plea agreement by misinforming him about the mandatory minimum sentence.

Because Davis only raised the issue of the plea agreement for the first time in his appeal, the Fourth Circuit could only review it for “plain error.” The court found that, under contract law, the government was only bound “by the promises it actually made to induce the defendant’s plea.” Davis, the court concluded, voluntarily signed a plea agreement in which the prosecution, on paper, made no guarantee of a specific sentence, indicating that the judge would have final discretion. Despite repeated statements by both the prosecutor and the judge in open court, the Fourth Circuit held that it could only bind the government to its written agreement. Incredibly, the court also held that the ACCA allows no discretion as to the mandatory minimum, so it would lack the authority to reduce Davis’ sentence below fifteen years regardless of the plea agreement.

In a concurring opinion, Senior District Judge Jackson Kiser, while agreeing with the court’s ultimate dismissal of Davis’ appeal, concluded that the government did breach the plea agreement. By making incorrect statements as to the mandatory minimum sentence, the prosecution failed to “disclose all material terms of the plea agreement” and triggered the defendant’s detrimental reliance on their mistake. Despite this, Judge Kiser agreed with the majority in denying Davis’ other grounds for appeal.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified Texas criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of defendants to complete and accurate information about their case and the law that governs it. Full knowledge and disclosure is essential to making an informed decision, and we are committed to making certain that the government and the court provide honest and accurate information. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online, or call (432) 687-5157 today.

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