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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Puckett v. United States - Breached Plea Agreement Subject to Harmless Error Review

In exchange for Puckett’s guilty plea, the government agreed to request (1) a three-level acceptance-of-responsibility reduction in his offense level; and (2) a sentence at the low end of the applicable guideline range. The district court accepted the plea, but before Puckett was sentenced he assisted in another crime. As a result, the government opposed any reduction in his offense level, and the judge denied the three-level reduction. On appeal, Puckett raised for the first time the argument that by backing away from its reduction request, the government had broken the plea agreement. The Fifth Circuit found that Puckett had forfeited that claim by failing to raise it below; applied Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(b)’s plain-error standard for unpreserved claims of error; and held that, although the error had occurred and was obvious, Puckett had not satisfied the third prong of plain-error analysis in that he failed to demonstrate that his ultimate sentence was affected, especially since the judge had found that acceptance-of-responsibility reductions for defendants who continued to engage in criminal activity were so rare as "to be unknown." The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Rule 52(b)’s plain-error test applies to a forfeited claim, like Puckett’s, that the government failed to meet its obligations under a plea agreement.