Freeman v. United States

PETITIONER: William Freeman
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky

DOCKET NO.: 09-10245
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 564 US (2011)
GRANTED: Sep 28, 2010
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 23, 2011

Curtis E. Gannon - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Frank W. Heft, Jr. - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

William Freeman was charged with one count of crack possession, among other charges, and entered a plea agreement that included a sentence of 106 months. After his agreement was accepted by the trial judge and his sentence was entered, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the Sentencing Guidelines to reduce the disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine, and made the amendment retroactive. Freeman sought to reduce his sentence accordingly.

But in December 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky refused to do so. In November 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.


Does a federal judge have the authority to reduce a criminal sentence after the U.S. Sentencing Commission amends the Sentencing Guidelines if the judge has already accepted a plea agreement?

Media for Freeman v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2011 in Freeman v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 2011 in Freeman v. United States

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The first case is William Freeman versus United States.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 calls for sentencing guidelines to inform judicial discretion in federal sentencing, and that at issue in this case is the meaning of one statutory provision in that Act in its 18 U.S.C. Section 3582 (c) (2).

The statute permits defendants who were sentenced based on a sentencing range that has since been amended to seek a reduced to sentence.

The question is whether a defendant who enters into a plea agreement that recommends a particular sentence may be said to be sentenced based on the guidelines.

If so, that would make him eligible to seek 3582 relief.

The petitioner in this case, William Freeman, entered into a plea agreement with the Government, and the agreement recommended a sentence of 106 months, a sentence which corresponded with the bottom of -- then applicable, crack cocaine guideline range.

The District Court accepted the plea and entered the sentence.

The sentencing commission later amended the crack cocaine guidelines and it made that Amendment retroactive.

Freeman sought a sentence reduction, but the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Freeman was sentenced based on the plea agreement rather than the guidelines so it held he is ineligible for relief.

Five members of the Court agreed that this judgment must be reversed.

Now, I've written the plurality opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.

Now, the opinion concludes that the Sixth Circuit's categorical bar finds no support in the statute or the rule governing plea agreements or in the guideline policies issued by the Commission.

In the plurality -- plurality's view in every case, the judge must exercise discretion, framed by the guidelines to impose an appropriate sentence regardless of whether the conviction is obtained by trial or by plea.

Justice Sotomayor has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment but outlining a different approach.

She concludes that sentence is following plea agreements that bind the District Court to impose a particular sentence, are based on the agreement rather than the guidelines but whereas here, the agreement itself ties the recommended sentence to the guideline's range that a defendant may seek 3582 relief.

In this case, the petitioner is thus entitled to seek a sentence reduction under the statute, and the contrary judgment of the Court of Appeals has reversed, the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito joined.