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United States v. Sandles

March 25, 1996






Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 92 CR 113--Rudolph T. Randa, Judge.

Before POSNER, Chief Judge, BAUER, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.



John E. Sandles pleaded guilty to bank larceny under 18 U.S.C. sec. 2113(b). On appeal he argues that the district court (1) should not have sentenced him as a career offender, even though the plea agreement stipulated that he be classified as such; and (2) should have given him a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility under the Sentencing Guidelines, rather than a two-level reduction. We affirm.


A federal grand jury charged Sandles with five counts of bank robbery under 18 U.S.C. sec. 2113(a). Sandles represented himself at trial, with his court-appointed lawyer serving as stand-by counsel. The jury convicted him, and the court sentenced him to five concurrent terms of 180 months (Offense Level 30, Criminal History Category VI/Career Offender, Range 168-210 months). This court vacated the judgment, on grounds that the district court did not sufficiently warn Sandles of the perils of proceeding pro se. United States v. Sandles, 23 F.3d 1121 (7th Cir. 1994).

On remand, Sandles continued to insist on representing himself, with court-appointed stand-by counsel. Sandles pursued an insanity defense, which caused his second trial to be postponed. He also filed a number of motions seeking to overturn or dismiss the indictment; the court twice granted Sandles' motion for a continuance. In February, 1995, Sandles indicated he wished to pursue plea negotiations. On June 15, shortly before trial was to begin, Sandles pleaded guilty to five lesser counts under 18 U.S.C. sec. 2113(b) ("bank larceny"). Each of the five counts charged that Sandles stole money "by force and intimidation." *fn1 The plea agreement stipulated that the crimes were crimes of violence, that Sandles was a career offender, and that his sentencing range, pursuant to U.S.S.G. sec. 4B1.1(E), would be 100-125 months incarceration (Offense Level 24, Criminal History Category VI/Career Offender). The government agreed to recommend a two-level reduction in the offense level for acceptance of responsibility under U.S.S.G. sec. 3E1.1.

At the sentencing hearing, Sandles sought to challenge his classification as a career offender, and argued for an additional one-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. The district court ruled that challenging the career offender stipulation disturbed the plea agreement, and informed Sandles that if he wished to pursue such a challenge, the government would have the option of withdrawing from the agreement. The government indicated it would not accept the plea without the stipulation. The court granted a two-level reduction in the base offense level for acceptance of responsibility, and sentenced Sandles to five concurrent terms of 105 months in prison.


We first address the applicable standard of review. Sandles argues that we should review the district court's decision de novo, because it involves an interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines. United States v. Sebero, 45 F.3d 1075, 1077 (7th Cir. 1995). The government counters that the classification of a defendant as a career offender is a finding of fact subject to review for clear error. Id. The district court, however, did not make its own finding of fact; the court explicitly stated it was not making an independent review. Therefore, to the extent Sandles argues that the Guidelines compel district courts to make such an independent examination, appellate review is plenary. The sentencing transcript makes clear, however, that the district court found the plea agreement so unusual that it felt constrained either to accept it without modification, or reject it altogether. We review the court's decision to accept or reject a plea agreement for abuse of discretion. U.S.S.G. secs. 6B1.2(a), 6B1.4(d); United States v. Greener, 979 F.2d 517, 518 (7th Cir. 1992).

Sandles argues that at the sentencing hearing, the district court should have let him challenge the stipulation that classified him as a career offender without otherwise disturbing the provisions of the plea agreement. This argument ignores the fact that plea bargains are contracts, albeit "unique contracts in which special due process concerns for fairness and the adequacy of procedural safeguards obtain." Carnine v. United States, 974 F.2d 924, 928 (7th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation omitted). As with other contracts, courts interpret disputed terms of a plea agreement according to the objective intentions of the parties. United States v. Eppinger, 49 F.3d 1244, 1251 (7th Cir. 1995).

In the case at bar, the plain language of the plea agreement states "that the defendant is a 'career offender' as that term is used and defined in U.S.S.G. sec. 4B1.1." Nothing in the plea agreement suggests that the government understood Sandles could challenge this stipulation. Neither does Sandles suggest that the government deliberately led him to believe that he could challenge the stipulation, and then changed its tune after Sandles pleaded guilty. It is true that stipulations, under the Sentencing Guidelines, cannot bind the court, because the court is not party to the agreement. U.S.S.G. sec. 6B1.4(d). In contrast, stipulations do bind the parties themselves. To hold anything else would be to reduce stipulations to mere inconsequential gestures. For this reason, it is objectively reasonable to understand that the government agreed to charge Sandles with the significantly less serious crime of bank larceny in exchange for Sandles' agreement to plead as a career offender. Indeed, if this were an ordinary contract, it would have been reasonable for the court simply to enforce the contract as written.

Nonetheless, because the agreement involved a plea of guilty to a serious offense, the court correctly concluded that concern for due process outweighed concern for freedom of contract. See United States v. Daniels, 902 F.2d 1238, 1243-44 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 981 (1990); Carnine, 974 F.2d at 928. Accordingly, the court treated the parties' disagreement over the stipulation as a mutual misunderstanding. Where there is a mutual misunderstanding as to the material terms of a contract, the appropriate remedy is rescission, not unilateral modification. See United States v. Southwestern Electric Cooperative, Inc., 869 F.2d 310, 314 (7th Cir. 1989); United States v. Bob Stofer Oldsmobile-Cadillac, Inc., 853 F.2d 1392, 1397-98 (7th Cir. 1988). Consequently, the court correctly concluded that letting Sandles challenge his classification as a career offender disturbed a material term of the plea agreement. Because the court could not, consistent with due process, forbid Sandles from making such a challenge, the appropriate remedy was to give the government the opportunity to rescind the contract and return the parties to ...

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