May 28, 2012

The Sixth Circuit Says That If You Plead Guilty To An Indictment You Don't Plead Guilty To All The Extra Bad Stuff The Government Put In The Indictment


Michael Louchart sold some guns. They were stolen and he knew it.

The feds caught up to him and charged him with conspiracy to steal firearms and with receiving and selling stolen firearms, each of which violated 18 U.S.C. § 922. In the indictment, the government said that Mr. Louchart was involved in the theft of more than 75 firearms.

It's not a coincidence that if a person steals more than 75 firearms they are then eligible for a sentencing enhancement under the sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Louchart didn't like his chances at trial. He entered a plea of guilty to the indictment, without a plea agreement.

1329263_pistol.jpgAt his plea hearing, the district court asked him what he did that made him guilty. Mr. Louchart said:

Well, a couple guys I know of brought me some guns, 13 revolvers and three long guns, and I sold them. And I knew they were stolen.

No one asked M. Louchart how many guns were stolen.

The presentence report assessed an increase in Mr. Louchart's proposed sentencing guidelines range, saying that he pled guilty to an indictment that said his crime involved more than 75 guns.

Mr. Louchart objected - he said he didn't say anything about any 75 guns.

The government put on no evidence of the number of guns, but relied on the fact that Mr. Louchart pled guilty to the indictment and the indictment said there were more than 75 guns.

The district court agreed, and applied the enhancement based on Mr. Louchart having participated in a conspiracy to steal guns with more than 75 guns.

Mr. Louchart appealed to the Sixth Circuit and, in United States v. Louchart, the Sixth Circuit reversed.

While, of course, the government can put on evidence to support a sentencing enhancement, and if it proves that the enhancement applies by a preponderance of the evidence, then an enhancement that a person being sentenced didn't admit to would apply. So admitting the facts supporting an enhancement under the sentencing guidelines isn't required to jack up a person's sentence.

As the court of appeals said,

To the extent that Louchart argues that he can be held accountable at sentencing only for the 17 guns that he admits possessing and selling, the law does not support such a limit. A district court may enhance a sentence based on relevant conduct so long as its factual findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence imposed does not exceed the statutory maximum.

But that's a separate issue.

The question, really, is whether Mr. Louchart admitted the number of guns in the indictment when he admitted that he was guilty of the offense charged there.

And the answer to that question is no.

As the Sixth Circuit explained,

Louchart's guilty plea, however, should not have been treated as an admission of the quantity of firearms stated in the indictment. The quantity of firearms involved was not an element of the offense, and the quantity of firearms alleged in the indictment was not admitted by Louchart at the plea hearing or in a plea agreement. Admission of facts from a guilty plea is limited to elements of the crime charged or those explicitly admitted to by the defendant. The Supreme Court for instance has carefully stated the scope of a guilty plea admission: "a guilty plea is an admission of all the elements of a formal criminal charge." McCarthy v. United Sates, 394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court has also described guilty pleas as "comprehend[ing] all of the factual and legal elements necessary to sustain a binding, final judgment of guilt and a lawful sentence." United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563, 569 (1989) (emphasis added). This limited language strongly suggests that a guilty plea does not constitute an admission of facts included in an indictment when those facts were not necessary to sustain a conviction. It follows that these facts cannot be used to increase a defendant's sentence without the district court's first determining that the facts are supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

And, for those who practice outside of the Sixth Circuit, there's a nice survey of cases from around the federal appellate courts on this question.

Because Mr. Louchart didn't admit the number of guns, just that he met the elements, his case was remanded for resentencing.

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