Supreme Court Gives Plea Agreement Guidance

Dissent express concern about making process uncertain

In a 5-2 decision released July 1 by the Colorado Supreme Court, the justices appear divided on the weight of the decision’s impact on criminal plea bargains. The court decided a simple question: If a prosecutor and defendant agree on a plea bargain, but the trial court decides a more lenient sentence is appropriate instead of the one agreed upon, can the prosecutor withdraw from the plea agreement? 

The majority said no and seemed to find the law and an applicable rule of criminal procedure unambiguous. 

Trial courts are required by state law and the Rules of Criminal Procedure to use independent judgment in deciding whether to accept sentence concessions in plea agreements. If a trial court decides not to accept the sentencing agreement, Colorado law and Rule of Criminal Procedure 32(d) direct a trial court to “advise the defendant and the district attorney” that it is not accepting the sentence concession “and then call upon the defendant to either affirm or withdraw the plea of guilty.”

Justice Carlos Samour wrote neither the law nor Rule 32(d) mention the prosecution’s ability to confirm or withdraw from a plea agreement after a trial court has said it rejects a sentencing agreement.

“This omission is telling because the statute and the rule expressly refer to the People elsewhere,” he wrote.

In the underlying case, Christopher Mazzarelli pled guilty to a charge of criminally negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. The plea included a sentence of two to eight years in prison. But the trial judge decided a prison sentence did not fit the situation, noting Mazzarelli’s child had not suffered permanent injuries and that Mazzarelli had made significant progress in a related dependency and neglect proceeding.

The court ultimately denied the prosecutor’s request to withdraw from the plea agreement as a sanction for misstatements she made during a hearing. The prosecution appealed, and the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to not allow the prosecution to withdraw from the plea agreement. The Court of Appeals said the prosecution wasn’t entitled to withdraw and the trial court had discretion to sentence Mazzarelli outside of the agreed-on range. 

The Supreme Court didn’t reach two of the three issues it granted for review:

• Whether the court of appeals erred in failing to answer the question about prosecutorial misconduct when the trial court specifically used the prosecutorial misconduct as a rationale for the sentence.

• Whether the Court of Appeals erred in barring remand by holding that double jeopardy bars reversal of sentence and remand for resentencing since the defendant started serving his sentence.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion addressed an argument made by the 4th Judicial District that a trial court violates separation of powers when it accepts a plea agreement but rejects the sentencing it contains without allowing the prosecution to withdraw from the agreement.

The argument’s fatal flaw, Samour wrote, is the assumption that a trial court’s acceptance of a plea agreement is contingent on its acceptance of the agreed upon sentence.

“Under the statute and rules, when the People create an opportunity for a defendant to plead guilty to an uncharged offense as part of a plea agreement, any sentence concessions in the agreement are mere recommendations that the trial court may accept or reject, and if the trial court rejects a sentence concession after the defendant pleads guilty, only the defendant may withdraw from the plea agreement,” he wrote.

In saying that sentencing concessions aren’t binding on a trial court once the prosecution and defendant agree on a plea, the majority opinion noted it doesn’t differentiate the meaning of terms such as “sentence stipulations,” “sentence agreements,” and “sentence concessions.”

But in a dissent joined by Justice Monica Márquez, Justice Brian Boatright disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the rule’s established clarity. He wrote he believes Rule 32(d) is ambiguous, and the majority’s interpretation “causes words to lose their common meaning.”

“Conversely, Crim. P. 32(d) can reasonably be read in a way that does not prohibit the prosecution from withdrawing from the plea agreement in this case. In so doing, words would retain their everyday meaning,” he wrote.

He said he disagrees with the majority equating terms such as sentence “concessions,” “agreements,” “stipulations” and “recommendations.” While a stipulation in an agreement is binding, he said, a recommendation is a specific piece of advice.

“When an interpretation of a rule causes words to lose their everyday meaning, that interpretation must be questioned and is an indication that the rule is ambiguous,” Boatright wrote.

Boatright said he doesn’t disagree with the importance of trial judges using their independent judgment to sentence defendants. The philosophical split with the majority, he wrote, is on the conclusion that the prosecution can be by a plea agreement they didn’t agree to. 

“In my view, just like when any attempt to have an agreement fails to come to fruition, both parties should have an opportunity to be restored to their original position,” Boatright wrote. “This is simply common sense.”

He added he believes the majority opinion will inject uncertainty into plea agreements and have a negative effect on methodical case resolutions.

According to a statement provided by the 4th Judicial District’s public information officer, the office agrees with concerns about injecting uncertainty into the resolution of cases. 

“It is fair to say this opinion will impact thousands of cases across the state,” she said. As part of the statement, the spokesperson added the office is also concerned about the opinion’s impact on victims’ rights, which the opinion didn’t address.

The Office of the Public Defender has a policy that it does not comment on pending cases.

— Julia Cardi

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