In 2010, LauroPuentes-Hurtado was indicted for a litany of narcotics and money laundering conspiracy charges in federal court in the Northern District of Georgia. He ultimately entered into a plea agreement with the Government.
He faced an advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range of 292-365 months in prison. The Government recommended a sentence of 210 months while Puentes-Hurtado’s attorney sought a sentence in the range of 150 to 180 months. The district court imposed a sentence of 180 months.
As part of his plea, Puentes-Hurtado signed an agreement that contained a “limited” appeal waiver. The waiver precluded Puentes-Hurtado from appealing his conviction and/or sentence “on any ground,” unless the Government appealed or the sentence “was based on an upward departure or variance.” The court discussed the appeal waiver personally with Puentes-Hurtado who stated that he understood its implications.
The waiver notwithstanding, Puentes-Hurtado appealed his conviction and sentence on the following grounds:
- Ineffective assistance of counsel rendered his plea involuntary,
- The district court violated Rule 11 failing to secure a factual basis for the plea and properly informing him of the nature of the charges, and
- The Government breached the plea agreement.
On July 22, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit rejected those claims and upheld Puentes-Hurtado’s conviction and sentence. However, the appeals court’s ruling is significant because the court joined its sister circuits, including the Fifth Circuit, in holding that an appeal waiver does not bar an appeal when that appeal is based on a claim that the guilty plea was involuntary.
Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in Bousley v. United States, the Eleventh Circuit said that “’a guilty plea is constitutionally valid only to the extent it is ‘voluntary and intelligent’ …’ It follows, therefore, that an appeal waiver or collateral attack waiver which is part of a guilty plea is unenforceable if the plea itself is involuntary or unintelligent.”
This conclusion by the court was influenced by the Seventh Circuit’s 1995 decision in United States v. Wenger and the Fifth Circuit’s 2012 decision in United States v. Carreon-Ibarra. The Seventh Circuit decision found that “waivers of appeal must stand or fall with the agreements of which they are a part. If the agreement is voluntary, and taken in compliance with Rule 11, then the waiver must be honored. If the agreement is involuntary, or otherwise unenforceable, then the defendant is entitled to appeal.” The Fifth Circuit expounded on the rule, saying that an appeal waiver “cannot be enforced ‘to bar a claim that the waiver itself—or the agreement of which it was a part—was unknowing or involuntary.’”
Approximately 97 percent of all federal drug defendants plead guilty through plea agreements with the Government each year. Integral components of these agreements are appeal waivers. The following waiver provision is an example used in typical plea agreements:
“The defendant is aware that 18 U.S.C. § 3742 affords a defendant the right to appeal the sentence imposed. Acknowledging all this, the defendant knowingly waives the right to appeal any sentence within the maximum provided in the statute(s) of conviction (or the manner in which that sentence was determined) on the grounds set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3742 or on any ground whatever, in exchange for the concessions made by the United States in this plea agreement. The defendant also waives his right to challenge his sentence or the manner in which it was determined in any collateral attack, including but not limited to a motion brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.”
A plea agreement is a contract between the United States and the defendant. While traditional rules of contract apply to these agreements, there are only two essential ways a defendant may void a plea contract containing a waiver of appeal: 1) it was not knowingly or intelligently entered into, or 2) the Government breached the agreement. Most of the federal circuits now agree on this rule: a defendant may appeal his conviction and sentence when he or she claims a breach or contests the voluntariness of the agreement.