Plea agreements are how the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved. Professionals representing the person accused and professionals representing the State can often evaluate the facts of a case and arrive at a negotiated resolution which is a fair compromise under those facts, sparing both sides the costs and risks of a trial. But a person entering into a plea agreement with the State must be able to rely upon the promises made in exchange for the guilty plea. In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Spang, M2014-00468-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 2-6-2015), the Court of Criminal Appeals remanded for specific performance of the State’s obligations under a plea agreement, where it determined the State had breached the agreement.
In the Spang case, the Defendant had been charged with voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. The parties entered into a written plea agreement under which the Defendant would plead guilty to the lesser offense of reckless homicide and the sentence would be probated. The agreement also provided the the Defendant would be applying for judicial diversion, which would defer the proceedings (so no conviction would enter yet) and could result in eventual dismissal of the charge if the Defendant complied with certain terms and conditions. Under the express terms of the agreement, the trial court would conduct a sentencing hearing to set a sentence within the applicable range and would decide the question of judicial diversion, upon which the State agreed to take no position.
The trial court accepted that agreement. Then, at the sentencing hearing, the State argued against judicial diversion. The trial court imposed a three year sentence, placed the Defendant on probation, but denied the request for diversion.
On appeal of the denial of judicial diversion, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the diversion request. However, the State, in arguing against the diversion, breached the plea agreement which had provided the State would take no position on the question. The Court remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing in front of a different trial court judge (who had not heard the State’s argument against diversion), directing that the State specifically perform its obligations under the plea agreement by taking no position on whether the trial court should grant judicial diversion.
For more information on the State’s obligations under the terms of a plea agreement, contact The Lanzon Firm.