THE OPEN GUILTY PLEA; THE NEGOTIATED GUILTY PLEA; and, THE JUDICIALLY-BOTCHED GUILTY PLEA
The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Root, No. 951 WDA 2017 (February 6, 2018), holding that it was error for the trial court to accept a negotiated plea that included a specific sentence term and, at the same time, inform Root that he could not withdraw his plea if the court opted to impose a harsher sentence term instead (which it did).
Root was charged with numerous crimes related to a sexually-violent incident with his then-paramour. Root and the Commonwealth ultimately presented the trial court with a negotiated plea agreement: Root agreed to plead guilty to four counts with the remaining counts nol prossed. Additionally, the negotiated plea included “a specific agreement on sentencing,” namely, an aggregate sentence of two to four years of imprisonment followed by twelve years of probation.
The trial court informed Root that it was willing to consider the sentence recommendation, but did not commit to go along with it immediately. Additionally, the trial court advised Root that if it decided to give him “more time… than what was agreed upon,” it would not allow him to withdraw his plea.
The trial court ultimately decided to “follow the agreement, but with kind of a twist” and, imposed a sentence of two to fourteen years of imprisonment, with credit for 292 days served. When Root’s counsel pointed out that, under the trial court’s sentencing scheme, there was “no guarantee that they would let Root out,” before his maximum sentence, the trial court essentially replied that it did not care.
Root appealed and after various amended PCRA petitions, his case came before the Superior Court.
In analyzing the case at hand, the Superior Court explained the various forms a guilty plea agreement may take:
THE OPEN PLEA AGREEMENT
“In an open plea agreement, there is an agreement as to the charges to be brought, but no agreement at all to restrict the prosecution’s right to seek the maximum sentences applicable to those charges. At the other end of the negotiated plea agreement continuum, a plea agreement may specify not only the charges to be brought, but also the specific penalties to be imposed. In between these extremes there are various options, including an agreement to make no recommendation or … an agreement to make a favorable but non-binding recommendation.”
THE NEGOTIATED PLEA AGREEMENT
And, “[w]here the plea bargain calls for a specific sentence that is beyond the prosecutor’s narrowly limited authority in sentencing matters, the plea bargain implicates the court’s substantive sentencing power, as well as its guardianship role, and must have court approval. Thus, the trial court has broad discretion in approving or rejecting plea agreements. The court may reject the plea bargain if the court thinks it does not serve the interests of justice. If the court is dissatisfied with any of the terms of the plea bargain, it should not accept the plea; instead, it should give the parties the option of proceeding to trial before a jury. Assuming the plea agreement is legally possible to fulfill, when the parties enter the plea agreement on the record, and the court accepts and approves the plea, then the parties and the court must abide by the terms of the agreement.”
“A trial court legally may impose a harsher sentence than the one agreed upon, even after accepting a plea with a negotiated sentence. However, when it does so, the trial court must give the defendant the option to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.”
THE JUDICIALLY-BOTCHED PLEA AGREEMENT
“Here, the trial court both accepted a plea that included as a term a specific penalty to be imposed and informed Root that receiving something other than the agreed-upon sentence was not a basis for withdrawal of the plea. Such was error. Under the applicable law of Pennsylvania discussed above, Root was entitled either to receive the benefit of the bargain, including the agreed-upon sentence, or the option to withdraw his plea.”
Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, making special note that it saw “no reason to deny the trial court its discretion to impose the sentence it has determined is appropriate, so long as it is subject to [Root’s] right to seek withdrawal of his plea.”
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