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Tenth Circuit: FRAP 4(b) Clock Commences Upon Entry in Public Docket

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a judgment must be entered on a district court’s publicly accessible criminal docket to commence the 14-day time limit in which a defendant may file a notice of appeal.

Francisco Mendoza pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine in exchange for the government’s agreement to recommend a sentence at the low end of the sentencing guidelines range.

At sentencing, the district court calculated Mendoza’s guidelines range as 135 to 168 months. His defense counsel then reminded the court of the government’s promise to recommend a sentence at the low end of that range. However, the prosecutor did not honor his promise. Rather, he “emphasized that Mendoza was a ‘highest level’ drug dealer, possessed firearms, and had been distributing drugs for twenty years.”

Regardless, the district court sentenced Mendoza to 135 months in prison at the lowest end of the range. The court then filed a sealed judgment on September 3, 2009. “This filing was not noted or reflected in any way on the docket sheet available to the public. The only evidence in the record that judgment was entered is a supplemental appendix filed by the government which contains a ‘Criminal Docket’ titled ‘Internal Use Only.’”

In June 2010, the district court responded to Mendoza’s request for a copy of the docket sheet in his case. Then, on September 13, 2010, he filed a pro se notice of appeal. The government moved to dismiss, arguing that the appeal was untimely under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure (FRAP) 4(b).

Although Mendoza filed his appeal more than a year after he was sentenced, the Tenth Circuit recognized that under Rule 4(b)(1)(A)(i), “the deadline to appeal begins to run not at sentencing but upon entry of judgment.”

The appellate court rejected the government’s argument that the “judgment was ‘entered on the criminal docket’ on September 3, 2009, when the court filed a sealed judgment and noted this filing on a document titled ‘Criminal Docket ... Internal Use Only.’”

Interpreting FRAP 4(b), the Court of Appeals concluded “that a judgment is not ‘entered on the criminal docket’ for purposes of Fed.R.App.P. 4(b)(6) unless judgment is noted on the docket in a publicly accessible manner. This does not mean that a court must provide access to the judgment itself, but the public docket must reflect the date judgment was entered.”

Since Mendoza’s criminal docket did not reflect the date his judgment had been entered, the appellate court denied the government’s motion to dismiss, finding that the “notice of appeal was filed after the court announced its sentence but before the entry of judgment, and thus his appeal is timely.”

Turning to the merits of the appeal, the Tenth Circuit agreed that the government had breached its agreement with Mendoza, despite the fact that his defense counsel “did not object to the prosecution’s breach of the plea agreement.” However, his sentence was affirmed because he was not prejudiced, as the trial court had in fact sentenced him at the low end of the guidelines range. See: United States v. Mendoza, 698 F.3d 1303 (10th Cir. 2012).

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