Justices: Decades-old rule in fixed plea modifications still stands

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The Indiana Lawyer on 8/17/2019 by Olivia Covington

In upholding a decades-old rule recently codified through a legislative amendment, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled in companion cases that trial courts can only modify a sentence entered as part of a fixed-plea agreement if the modified sentence would not have violated the plea agreement at the time the sentence was originally imposed.

The court handed down unanimous opinions on the sentence-modification question Wednesday in Alberto Baiza Rodriguez v. State of Indiana18S-CR-143, and State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford39S04-1712-CR-749.

In the Rodriguez case, Alberto Rodriguez pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor drunken driving charges and was sentenced to six years on work release. The agreement noted there was “no discretion to change” Rodriguez’s sentencing order as long as he remained on work release.

Likewise in Stafford, Pebble Stafford was sentenced under a fixed plea agreement to six years in the Department of Correction for a felony drug charge, plus consecutive sentences of 30 days in county jail and four years in community corrections for drug and battery charges.

Both Rodriguez and Stafford moved to modify their sentences. In Stafford’s case, the trial court allowed the modification and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed. In Rodriguez’s case, however, the trial court denied the modification, but a divided Court of Appeals reversed.

The dissent in the initial Rodriguez opinion was from former Justice and now-Senior Judge Robert Rucker, who wrote that amendments to Indiana’s sentence modification statute, specifically, Indiana Code § 35-38-1-17(l), did not “repeal long-standing statutory authority or to overrule long-standing judicial precedent… .” Likewise, after the Stafford and Rodriguez opinions came down, the Indiana General Assembly once again amended the sentence modification statute to codify the longstanding practice of courts deferring to sentences in fixed plea agreements unless the prosecutor consents to a modified sentence outside the terms of the agreement.

With that legislative amendment, the Indiana Supreme Court remanded both cases to the COA for reconsideration in light of the new statute.

In Rodriguez, the lower appellate court once again upheld the modification of the fixed sentence, finding the statutory amendments weren’t applicable. Rucker again dissented.

However, in Stafford, the Court of Appeals determined the amendment made clear that “the legislature never intended to create a right to modification of fixed sentences imposed under a plea agreement.” The cases then went before the Supreme Court for oral arguments in May. The justices used the Rodriguez decision to outline their legal analysis, finding that neither trial court had discretion to modify either defendants’ fixed sentences.

“As a matter of statutory interpretation, we find the decades-old rule of sentence modification remains undisturbed: courts may modify a sentence only if the new sentence would not have violated the terms of the valid plea agreement had the new sentence been originally imposed,” Justice Steven David wrote for the Supreme Court in Rodriguez.

David began the court’s analysis by noting the Legislature made amendments to the sentence modification statute in 2014, 2016 and 2018, throwing the legal community “into uncertain territory over whether defendants who entered into a fixed-term plea agreement could now petition for sentence modification despite the terms of their agreement.”

“Our own Court of Appeals in Rodriguez II and Stafford II charted no less than four possible paths forward to interpret the same statutory provisions,” the justice wrote.

In clarifying the confusion, the court relied on the rule of Pannarale v. State, 638 N.E.2d 1247 (Ind. 1994) — in fixed plea agreements, “a deal is a deal.”

“The logical application of this rule — that a defendant may not petition for modification of a fixed-plea sentence because the plea agreement authorized the court to only impose a specific sentence — has been reinforced by Pannarale and its progeny for several decades leading up to the present challenge,” David wrote. “… This rule is reinforced by codified law under Indiana Code section 35-35-3-3(e), which provides, ‘If the court accepts a plea agreement, it shall be bound by its terms.’ That provision has remained unchanged since this Court’s decision in Pannarale …”

But that rule came into question with the 2014 amendment, which, under I.C. 35-28-1-17(l), held that “(a) person may not waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement.” However, due to the confusion created by the COA opinions, the 2018 General Assembly amended I.C. 35-38-1-17(e) to hold that “if the convicted person was sentenced under the terms of a plea agreement, the court may not, without the consent of the prosecuting attorney, reduce or suspend the sentence and impose a sentence not authorized by the plea agreement.”

Further, subsection (l) was amended in 2018 to hold that the statute does not prohibit “the finding of a waiver of the right to…have a court modify a sentence and impose a sentence not authorized by the plea agreement, as described under subsection (e)… .”

“We think a reasonable harmonization of these provisions is that the legislature sought only to ban the explicit waiver of the right to sentence modification within the text of the written plea agreement,” David wrote. “…This view also reinforces the well-established principle that plea agreements are contractual in nature.”

The court handed down a shorter, four-page opinion in Stafford, writing that the law stated in Rodriguez is equally applicable to Stafford’s case. Thus, in Rodriguez, the justices affirmed the denial of his motion for sentence modification, while they reversed the grant of Stafford’s sentence modification.

Stafford was remanded for further proceedings necessary to resolve the case.