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United States v. Williams

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 16, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Chance Garrett Williams Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: May 13, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Rapid City

          Before BENTON, WOLLMAN, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         Chance Garrett Williams pled guilty to two counts of attempted sexual exploitation of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and (e). He appeals his consecutive sentences. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1291, this court affirms.

         Based on Williams' total offense level of 43 and his criminal history category of I, the Sentencing Guidelines recommend life imprisonment. However, under 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e), the statutory maximum sentence is 30 years for each count, or 60 for both. The district court[1] sentenced Williams to consecutive sentences of 360 months' imprisonment on each count, for a total custodial sentence of 720 months (60 years). Williams asserts that (1) the district court erred in making his sentences consecutive, rather than concurrent, and (2) his sentence creates an unwarranted disparity and is substantively unreasonable.

         I.

         The government argues that the written plea agreement forecloses the appeal. "As a general rule, a defendant is allowed to waive appellate rights." United States v. Andis, 333 F.3d 886, 889 (8th Cir. 2003) (en banc). However, the government first must prove that "the appeal is clearly and unambiguously within the scope of the waiver." United States v. McIntosh, 492 F.3d 956, 959 (8th Cir. 2007) (cleaned up). The defendant also must have entered into the plea agreement "knowingly and voluntarily." Andis, 333 F.3d at 890. This court "will not enforce a waiver where to do so would result in a miscarriage of justice." Id. This court reviews de novo "[w]hether a valid waiver of appellate rights occurred." United States v. Sisco, 576 F.3d 791, 795 (8th Cir. 2009).

         "Where a plea agreement is ambiguous, the ambiguities are construed against the government." Margalli-Olvera v. I.N.S., 43 F.3d 345, 353 (8th Cir. 1994). In the plea agreement, Williams waived his right "to appeal any non-jurisdictional issues" with these exceptions:

The parties agree that excluded from this waiver is the Defendant's right to appeal any decision by the Court to depart upward pursuant to the sentencing guidelines as well as the length of his sentence for a determination of its substantive reasonableness should the Court impose an upward departure or an upward variance pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
The Defendant understands he may not appeal a sentence up to and including his 30 year recommendation as set forth in paragraph G, even if that sentence is reached via upward departure or variance.

         The plea agreement thus prohibits Williams from appealing a sentence "up to and including his 30 year recommendation." This could be interpreted to mean that Williams may appeal a total sentence longer than 30 years. In this case-where 30 years was the mandatory minimum for both counts combined (15 years each), and also the statutory maximum on each count individually-the waiver's reference to "30 year recommendation" is unclear and ambiguous.

         Reviewing the waiver, the magistrate judge explained that Williams could appeal "if there's an upward departure that goes above and beyond the 30 years" or "if an upward departure variance would place you above the 30-year mandatory minimum and you receive a sentence as such." The government admits this explanation "lacked optimal clarity." This court agrees. The explanation does not clarify the ambiguous language of the written agreement, and it does not ensure that Williams understood the scope of the waiver. See United States v. Fugate, 158 Fed.Appx. 748, 749 (8th Cir. 2005) (before accepting a guilty plea, the court must ensure the defendant understands the waiver of appellate rights).

         Because the appeal waiver is ambiguous and the district court did not adequately ensure Williams entered into it knowingly and ...


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