United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
Michael F. Urbanski Chief U.S. District Judge.
matter is before the court on defendant Iza Mar
Rosario-Cruzado's Motion for Specific Performance of Plea
Agreement, filed on June 11, 2019. ECF No. 52. The government
responded on June 17, 2019. ECF No. 53. For the reasons
explained in this Memorandum Opinion, the court
DENIES defendant's motion.
January 8, 2019, defendant was arrested on a criminal
complaint alleging one count of distribution resulting in
death under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). ECF No.
1. The complaint alleges that defendant distributed one
"bundle," weighing approximately one gram, of
heroin and fentanyl to Richard Mansfield on December 12,
2017. ECF No. 1-1, at 6. Mansfield later shared this bundle
with Matthew Jason Murphy, someone defendant never met or
sold to directly. Id. at 5-6. The day after he
received a share of the bundle, Murphy was found dead from
acute heroin and fentanyl intoxication. Id. at 2-3.
Mansfield pled guilty to distribution of heroin and fentanyl
on September 12, 2018 pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal
Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) with an agreed range of seven to twelve
years of incarceration. See United States v.
Mansfield. No. 5:18-cr-22, ECF No. 8.
was indicted on February 5, 2019 and charged with
distribution of heroin and fentanyl resulting in death. ECF
No. 17. This crime carries a statutory sentencing range of 20
years to life. 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). Defendant
states in her brief in support of motion (and government does
not deny) that defendant and the government reached a plea
agreement whereby she would plead guilty to the lesser
included offense of distribution under 21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(C), with an agreed range of eight to fourteen
years. ECF No. 52, at 3 (defendant's brief in support of
motion); ECF No. 53, at 1 (government's brief in
opposition to the motion). Defendant signed this written
agreement on May 1, 2019; a change of plea hearing was set
for May 8, 2019. ECF No. 44 & 46. The day before the
scheduled hearing, the government cancelled the scheduled
hearing and notified counsel that it would not proceed with
the plea agreement. ECF No. 52, at 3; ECF No. 53, at 1.
Counsel for defendant states in her motion that, to her
knowledge, this is due not to any change in circumstance, but
simply because of a "change of heart" within the
U.S. Attorney's Office. ECF No. 52, at 2.
argues for specific performance of the plea agreement,
drawing on Virginia contract law to support her motion. ECF
No. 52, at 4. She argues that, under Virginia law, a party
may be bound by an agreement even where a formal contract is
contemplated, but not executed. Id. at 4. Defendant
points to Snyder-Falkingham v. Stockburger, 249 Va.
376, 385, -457 S.E.2d 36, 37 (1995), in which the Virginia
Supreme Court recognized that a settlement agreement was
binding where the parties had agreed to all terms and acted
affirmatively to enter into the agreement, even though one of
the parties refused to sign the subsequently written
agreement. Id. at 5. Similarly, defendant argues
that here, the parties had agreed on all material terms of
what was essentially a contract between the defendant and the
government. Id. The only element missing was the
government's signature. Id. Defendant argues
that this was, essentially, an offer from the government,
and, "[w]here the offer is clear, definite, and
explicit, and leaves nothing open for negotiation, it
constitutes an offer, acceptance of which will complete the
contract." Chang v. First Colonial Sav. Bank.
242 Va. 388, 391 (1991) (holding that a newspaper
advertisement constituted an offer, which the plaintiffs had
government responds that language within the plea agreement
made clear that the plea agreement would not be binding on
the government until the government signed it. ECF No. 53, at
1-2. See ECF No. 52-1, at 11 ("I understand the United
States has not accepted my offer until it signs the
agreement"). The government further argues that while
courts "apply contract principles to analyze and
interpret plea agreements," a plea agreement is not only
a contract between two parties but "necessarily
implicates the integrity of the criminal justice
system." United States v. Cvijanovich. 556 F.3d
857, 862 (8th Cir. 2009). Thus, plea agreements
"require the courts to exercise judicial authority in
considering the plea agreement." Id.
motion presents an undecided area of law within the Fourth
Circuit. Fields v. Attorney Gen, of State of Md..
956 F.2d 1290, 1298 (4th Cir. 1992), stated in a footnote
that, "The state may withdraw a plea offer at any time
before it is accepted or detrimentally relied upon."
Here, however, defendant had accepted the plea agreement when
the government withdrew it. Given this, the Fourth Circuit
has scant guidance to offer. Other circuits presented with
similar facts have held that a plea agreement that has not
been entered and accepted by the trial court does not bind
the parties. See, e.g.. United States v.
Norris. 486 F.3d 1045, 1052 (8th Or. 2007) ("We
hold that a defendant generally has no right to specific
performance of a plea agreement where the Government
withdraws from the agreement before the defendant's
associated guilty plea is accepted by the district
court."); United States v. Kuchinski. 469 F.3d
853, 858 (9th Or. 2006) ("...[a] plea agreement that has
not been entered and accepted by the trial court does not
bind the parties." (citation omitted)); United
States v. Savage. 978 F.2d 1136, 1138 (9th Cir. 1992)
("We hold that neither the defendant nor the government
is bound by a plea agreement until it is approved by the
court."); United States v. Alvarado-Arriola,
742 F.2d 1143 (9th Cir. 1984) (holding that where a trial
court rejects a plea agreement because of the actions of the
defendant, the government is no longer bound by the terms of
the agreement); United States v. Wessels, 12 F.3d
746, 753 ("[Defendant] is not entitled to relief due to
the government's withdrawal of its consent to the plea
agreement. Whatever benefits [defendant] intended to reap as
a result of the agreement were entirely contingent upon the
approval of the district court."); United States v.
Ocanas. 628 F.2d 353, 358 (5th Cir. 1980) ("Neither
party is justified in relying substantially on the bargain
until the trial court approves it. We are therefore reluctant
to bind them to the agreement until that time.").
Supreme Court jurisprudence, however, and subsequent
appellate court caselaw, has cast doubt on the premise that a
plea agreement that has not been accepted by the court is
still fluid and nonbinding. In United States v.
Hyde. 520 U.S. 670 (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that
a defendant could not withdraw a plea of guilty without a
fair and just reason when the court had accepted the plea,
but deferred judgment on the plea agreement. Following cases
implemented this reasoning and expanded upon it. See,
e.g., United States v. Grant. 117 F.3d 788, 791
(5th Cir. 1997) (examining Hyde, holding that a
defendant must give a fair and just reason to withdraw a
guilty plea that had been entered but not yet accepted, and
recognizing that the holding in United States v.
Ocanas, 628 F.2d 353, 358 (5th Cir. 1980), that either
party to a plea agreement could modify its position until the
plea and plea bargain were accepted by the court was contrary
to its subsequent decision in United States v. Foy.
28 F.3d 464 (5th Cir. 1994)); United States v.
Mower. 110 F.Supp.3d 1196, 1201 (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2015)
(enforcing an unwritten plea agreement and refusing to permit
repudiation of the agreement by the government after the
agreement had been informally presented to the judge).
Hyde and many of the following above cited cases,
however, address what rules apply when a defendant attempts
to withdraw from a plea agreement. Here, it is
defendant attempting to enforce a plea agreement,
while the government contends there was never an agreement at
all. Hyde; 520 U.S. at 671 ("After the
defendant in this case pleaded guilty, pursuant to a plea
agreement, the District Court accepted his plea but deferred
decision on whether to accept the plea agreement. The
defendant then sought to withdraw his plea.").
is the only example in the above cited cases of a defendant
attempting to enforce a plea agreement that the government
later rescinded. 110 F.Supp.3d at 1197. In Mower,
the parties engaged in plea negotiations prior to a scheduled
jury trial and, just as the court was preparing to take the
bench to commence jury selection, appeared in the judge's
chambers to advise the court that serious negotiations were
underway that might resolve the case. Id. Jury
selection was continued; the parties then met to work out the
material terms of a plea agreement. After more negotiations,
the parties appeared before the court in chambers and
confirmed that an agreement had been reached. Id. at
1198. The court set a hearing for later the same day and
continued the trial. Id. At that hearing, however,
the government informed the court that there might be an
"impasse." Id. The government later filed
a notice of withdrawal of all plea offers previously
Mower defendant filed a motion not to enforce the
plea agreement, but to have the court hear the plea to which
both parties had orally agreed. Mower, 110 F.Supp.3d
at 1198. The court, in examining these issues, looked to both
constitutional and contractual principles, but focused on the
contractual side of the plea negotiation process as "the
defense [did] not bring this motion claiming there were
constitutional violations . ..." Id. The court
noted that a contract is enforceable where there is a
"meeting of the minds" on at least the
"essential terms" of the contract. Id. at
1199-1200. In discussing authority cited by the government
stating that plea agreements are only enforceable upon court
approval, the court deemed both Norris and
Ocanas to no longer be good law, as the reasoning of
both had been "subverted" by Hyde (see
above). Id. at 1200. The court then granted the
defendant's motion, ruling that the act of meeting in
front of the judge and "shaking hands" was
"tantamount to the judge accepting a plea in
Mower's analysis of contract principles bears
weight here; nevertheless, significant factual dscrepancies
distinguish Mower from the situation at hand.
Mower's parties had presented their agreement to
the court; the judge had witnessed them shake hands upon the
conclusion of negotiations. 110 F.Supp.3d at 1197.
Mower's ruling was born largely from the
court's conclusion that public policy "should not
allow the government to withdraw the deal after an agreement
had been reached and represented to the court to be final
with only the 'tweaking of a couple sentences' left
to be done." Id. at 1202. As it turns out, the
language of the ...