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United States of America v. Scott Edward Whitney

March 7, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
SCOTT EDWARD WHITNEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



D.C. No. 2:09-cr-00149- FCD-2 Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California Frank C. Damrell, Senior District Judge, Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reinhardt, Circuit Judge:

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Argued and Submitted

October 11, 2011-San Francisco, California

Before: Betty B. Fletcher, Stephen Reinhardt, and A. Wallace Tashima, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Reinhardt

OPINION

Scott Edward Whitney appeals his 87-month sentence on a guilty plea to a one-count indictment under 18 U.S.C. § 286. He contends that the U.S. Attorney breached the parties' plea agreement by disclosing admissions made by Whitney while cooperating with the government, and by urging imposition of a sentence above the low end of the Sentencing Guidelines. He also contends that the district court erred by improperly imposing a two-level leadership enhancement. We hold that the breach of the plea agreement by the U.S. Attorney resulted in plain error that affected Whitney's substantial rights. We additionally hold that the district court committed clear error when it imposed a two-level role enhancement for Whitney's alleged role as a leader or organizer pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(c). Accordingly, we vacate Whitney's sentence and remand for resentencing before a different judge.*fn1

BACKGROUND

Scott Edward Whitney entered into a plea agreement with the government in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government by filing false claims, 28 U.S.C. § 286. This charge was based on Whitney's role in a scheme to file false tax returns using inmate identities and personal information while he was incarcerated in Herlong Federal Correctional Institution ("Herlong") for a similar offense. In exchange for Whitney's guilty plea, his promise of full cooperation with the government, and a limited waiver of his right to appeal, Whitney received from the government a number of promises related to sentencing. Among those relevant to this appeal are the government's representations that it would recommend to the court that Whitney be sentenced to the low end of the applicable guideline range for his offense, and that in its effort to establish the applicable sentencing guideline range it would not use any incriminating information divulged by Whitney during the course of his cooperation.*fn2 The plea agreement included a number of stipulations regarding the calculation of Whitney's sentence, including his base offense level, but contained no stipulation related to his role in the offense. To the contrary, the plea agreement explicitly reserved to both the defendant and the government the right to argue their respective positions as to whether Whitney should receive a two-level enhancement for his role in the offense.*fn3 The agreement also precluded either party from arguing in support of any departure from the Sentencing Guidelines.

The presentence report identified three participants: Whitney, Paucar, who was another Herlong inmate who recruited Whitney to participate in this scheme, and Alexander, also a Herlong inmate, who was connected to the scheme through Paucar. It also reported that the investigating IRS agents were unable to discover whether the inmates identities and personal information used to complete the tax returns were obtained fraudulently or were supplied voluntarily by the inmates named on the returns. According to the report, at Paucar's request Whitney supplied him with tax forms and information on filing false returns. Whitney admitted to filing his own false return as well as false returns using other inmates' identities.

The presentence report concluded that Whitney should receive a two-level upward role adjustment pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1, based on his role managing the completion of the fraudulent tax forms. The probation officer determined that based on Whitney's criminal history category and offense level, including the two-level role enhancement, the corresponding sentencing guideline range was 41 to 51 months. The probation officer nonetheless suggested an upward departure to 87 months to reflect the seriousness of the offense and Whitney's lengthy criminal history.

At Whitney's sentencing, the judge took note of the presentence report and commented on Whitney's "impressive" criminal history. The judge heard first from Whitney's attorney, Dorfman, who pointed out that the plea agreement permitted him to argue that Whitney should not receive a role enhancement. Dorfman did not contest the findings included in the presentence report, but asserted that its conclusion was incorrect and contended that the enhancement was not appropriate because Whitney was not a leader or organizer but rather was recruited by Paucar, as described in the report. Dorfman challenged the upward departure urged in the presentence ...


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