Court Resolves Confusion In Certain Plea Agreements, Holds They Are Subject To Sentencing Guidelines

In 2011, the Court had to decide whether a criminal defendant who entered into a plea deal under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) could petition to reduce his or her sentence under 18 U.S.C. sec. 3582(c)(2) (which permits a reduction upon a change in the Sentencing Guidelines) if the Sentencing Guidelines were later amended to lower the sentencing range for the crime the defendant was pleading guilty to. The result, Freeman v. United States, was fractured, with four justices and Justice Sotomayor disagreeing as to the conditions required to permit the reduction: the plurality held that such plea agreements were based on the Sentencing Guidelines, and so always eligible for reduction, while Sotomayor argued that plea agreements could sometimes be based on the Sentencing Guidelines, but sometimes not. The lower courts then disagreed as to which rationale should be applied. Now, in a 6-3 opinion by Justice Kennedy in Hughes v. United States, the Court resolved the confusion and sided with the Freeman plurality, holding that plea agreements should be assumed to be based on the Guidelines unless expressly stated otherwise, and thus those plea agreements are eligible for reduction under Section 3582(c)(2). Justice Sotomayor, in concurrence, expressed regret over the confusion her Freeman opinion caused, deciding that this result permitted more needed predictability in criminal sentencing. Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito, dissented, arguing that the majority’s rationale remained as unpersuasive as the plurality’s in Freeman.