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United States v. Hicks

January 5, 2007

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RICHARD ALLEN HICKS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Muir

ORDER

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS ORDER IS AS FOLLOWS

On July 19, 2006, the parties filed a plea agreement in which they stipulated that 15 years' incarceration and a lifetime on supervised release "is a reasonable sentence under the facts and circumstances of this case." (Plea Agreement, p. 6, ¶13) The advisory guideline imprisonment range set forth in Hicks's presentence report is 17 years and 5 months to 21 years and 10 months.

The advisory guideline imprisonment range, in conjunction with the fact that Hicks committed a serious prior sexual offense involving a minor, prompted us, on October 31, 2006, to issue an order requiring the parties to file a brief addressing the issue of whether the sentence to which they have stipulated in the plea agreement (15 years' incarceration) is reasonable. After considering the brief jointly filed by the parties on November 29, 2006, by order dated December 8, 2006, we advised the parties that we would not accept their stipulation regarding the sentence to be imposed and we allowed Defendant Richard Allen Hicks 30 days from the date of the order to withdraw his guilty plea.

On December 20, 2006, Hicks filed a motion for reconsideration of the December 8, 2006, order. Because the government concurs in the motion no briefs have been filed in connection with the motion and it is ripe for disposition.

We first set forth the legal principles governing motions for reconsideration, beginning with the well-settled doctrine of 'law of the case.' It is important to note the manner in which a court's reconsideration of a prior decision meshes with that doctrine.

The 'law of the case' doctrine "directs [a federal court's] exercise of its discretion." Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey, Inc., et al. v. Magnesium Elektron, Inc., 123 F.3d 111, 113 (3d Cir. 1997). When the United States Supreme Court considered how a motion for reconsideration affects the scope and nature of that discretion, it commented that [a] court has the power to revisit prior decisions of its own or of a coordinate court in any circumstance, although as a rule courts should be loathe to do so in the absence of extraordinary circumstances such as where the initial decision was 'clearly erroneous and would work a manifest injustice.'

Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 817, 108 S.Ct. 2166, 2178 (1988)(Emphasis added).

The Supreme Court's guidance in Christianson is reflected in the repeated holding of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that we have recognized that the doctrine [of law of the case] does not preclude our reconsideration of previously decided issues in extraordinary circumstances such as where: (1) new evidence is available; (2) a supervening new law has been announced; or (3) the earlier decision was clearly erroneous and would create manifest injustice.

In re City of Philadelphia Litigation, 158 F.3d 711, 718 (3d Cir. 1998)(Emphasis added); See also Public Interest Research Group of New Jersey, Inc., 123 F.3d at 117-118. A demonstration of extraordinary circumstances as outlined in those cases is a threshold prerequisite for obtaining reconsideration of a court's prior decision.

Numerous other cases discuss the events and conditions which do not constitute extraordinary circumstances justifying a court's reconsideration of a prior decision. "A motion for reconsideration is not properly grounded on a request that a court should rethink a decision it has already made." Armstrong v. Reisman, No. 99-CV-4188, 2000 WL 288243, *2 (E.D. Pa. March 7, 2000)(Brody, J.). The standard applied to a motion for reconsideration in a criminal case is the same as that applied to such a motion made in a civil case. See United States v. Herrold, 962 F.2d 1131, 1136 (3d Cir. 1992).

The cases cited above demonstrate that a motion for reconsideration is a device of limited utility. Its fundamental purpose is to remedy manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered precedent or evidence which, if discovered previously, might have affected the court's decision. Harsco, supra. A party seeking to establish that the court has made such a manifest error is required "to persuade us not only that our prior decision was wrong, but that it was clearly wrong and that adherence to that decision would create manifest injustice." In re City of Philadelphia Litigation, 158 F.3d 711, 718 (3d Cir. 1998). We will apply those concepts to Hicks's pending motion for reconsideration of our order dated December 8, 2006.

We next review the legal concepts controlling the motion's substantive merits. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has long held that "[a]lthough a plea agreement occurs in a criminal context, it remains contractual in nature and is to be analyzed under contract-law principles." United States v. Isaac, 141 F.3d 477, 481 (3d Cir. 1998)(quoting United States v. Moscahlaidis, 868 F.2d 1357, 1361 (3d Cir.1989)); see also United States v. Hodge, 412 F.3d 479, 485 (3d Cir. 2005)(noting that a court is to "apply contract law standards to plea agreements [and that] a 'rigidly literal' interpretive approach is not allowed."). Especially significant in this case is the principle that "[u]nder contract law, the court must read [a defendant's] plea bargain in a manner that gives meaning to each provision." United States v. Floyd, 428 F.3d 513, 516 (3d Cir. 2005).

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c) is entitled "Plea Agreement Procedure," and it provides in ...


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