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United States v. Hartley.

No. 22-3010. D.Kan. Judge Matheson. Early Termination of Probation—18 USC § 3564(c)—Waiver of Appeal Rights—Blanket Policy versus Statutory Criteria—Harmless Error.

May 17, 2022

In separate actions, defendants Hartley and Detter moved for early termination of probation under 18 USC § 3564(c). The same district court judge denied both motions, concluding that where the principal sentence was probation, shortening that sentence was not in the interests of justice, even if a defendant’s conduct was meritorious.

As an initial matter on appeal, the Tenth Circuit determined that the appeal waiver in Hartley’s plea agreement did not bar his appeal because (1) it did not encompass the denial of his post-sentencing motion to terminate probation under § 3564(c); and (2) it reflects ambiguity on whether he waived certain rights to appeal a sentence modification, such as the motion at issue here.

On the merits, defendants argued that the district court abused its discretion by adopting a blanket policy to deny them relief and refusing to consider the statutory criteria under § 3564(c). At oral argument, the Government conceded that the district court judge had ruled similarly in other cases and that it could not identify a case in which the judge had taken a different approach. When a district court imposes or is asked to modify a sentence, it must make individualized determinations based on the applicable statutory criteria rather than rely on a blanket policy. Section 3564(c) allows a court to terminate probation upon consideration of (1) the applicable § 3553(a) factors, (2) the defendant’s conduct, and (3) the interests of justice. Here, the district court’s blanket policy was in direct conflict with statutory rules governing probation. Accordingly, the judge’s categorical rejection of early termination of probation in these cases was an abuse of discretion. Further, the error was not harmless because the Government could not meet its burden to show that, absent the abuse of discretion, the result would have been the same, especially in light of the court’s finding that each defendant’s conduct on probation was meritorious.

The Government’s motion to dismiss Hartley’s appeal based on the appeal waiver provision in his plea agreement was denied. The orders denying defendants’ motions for early termination of probation under § 3564(c) were reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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