Pretrial Proceedings

Record Should Clearly Reflect That Indicated Sentence Represents Trial Court's Best Judgment as to Appropriate Punishment, Regardless of Whether Guilt Is Established By Plea or Trial

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In People v. Clancey (2013) 56 C.4th 562, 155 C.R.3d 485, 299 P.3d 131, over the prosecution's objection, defendant pleaded no contest to all charges and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. To arrive at the 5-year sentence, the trial court exercised its discretion under P.C. 1385 to dismiss an enhancement and a prior strike allegation. The Court of Appeal vacated defendant's pleas and admissions, concluding that the trial court offered to dismiss the strike as an inducement to an unlawful judicial plea bargain. On appeal to the California Supreme Court, defendant argued that the 5-year sentence was an exercise of the trial court's lawful sentencing discretion and that he entered the plea in response to the indicated sentence. Held, the record was ambiguous about whether the trial court's proposed sentence reflected what it believed was the appropriate punishment in this particular case, regardless of whether defendant was convicted by plea or trial, or instead reflected what it believed was necessary to induce defendant to enter a plea; the case was remanded to clarify the ambiguity.

(a) The plea bargaining process contemplates an agreement negotiated by the prosecution and the defendant and approved by the court. Because the charging function is entrusted to the "executive," the court has no authority to substitute itself as the representative of the prosecution in the negotiation process and, under the guise of plea bargaining, to "agree" to a disposition of the case over the prosecution's objection. On the other hand, where a defendant pleads guilty to all charges so all that remains is the pronouncement of judgment and sentencing, there is no requirement that the prosecution consent to a guilty plea. In that circumstance, the court may indicate the sentence it will impose, regardless of whether guilt is adjudicated at trial or admitted by plea. (56 C.4th 569, 570.)

(b) The prospect of prosecutorial intransigence and judicial overreaching circumscribe a trial court's discretion to indicate its sentence in the following ways:

(1) To preserve the executive's prerogative to conduct plea negotiations, a trial court generally should not announce an indicated sentence while the parties are still negotiating a potential plea bargain. (56 C.4th 574.)

(2) A trial court should consider whether the record is adequate to make a reasoned and informed judgment as to the appropriate penalty. The utility of an indicated sentence necessarily depends on the quality of the information available at an early stage regarding the offense and the defendant's criminal history. (56 C.4th 575.)

(3) A trial court may not offer any inducement in exchange for a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and may not treat a defendant more leniently for not exercising the right to trial or more harshly for exercising that right. (56 C.4th 575.) When a trial court properly indicates a sentence, it makes no promise that the sentence will be imposed. Instead, the court retains full discretion to select a fair and just punishment at the sentencing hearing, whether based on evidence and argument or on a more careful and refined judgment as to the appropriate sentence. (56 C.4th 575, 576.)

(4) A trial court may not bargain with a defendant over the sentence. (56 C.4th 575.)

(c) Notwithstanding these limitations, the line between a lawful indicated sentence and an improper inducement has not always been “bright.” And although it would be helpful for the trial court to state expressly that it is providing an indicated sentence, a mere label is not necessarily sufficient to ensure that the court has not overreached into the prosecution's role in negotiating dispositions. Thus, "a trial court that intends to offer an indicated sentence should not only identify it as such, but should also ensure that the record makes clear the indicated sentence represents the court's best judgment as to the appropriate punishment for this defendant and this offense, regardless of whether guilt is established by plea or at trial." (56 C.4th 576.)

(d) Here, there is no clear statement. Instead, the record is ambiguous about whether the court extended leniency to defendant because of his plea. Although the court never stated that defendant would face a more severe punishment if he went to trial or that the proposed disposition might expire absent prompt acceptance, the court did make statements that would support such an inference. On the other hand, the record also shows (1) that the court considered itself fully informed about defendant and his crimes, (2) that it was aware it retained discretion to reconsider the appropriate punishment at sentencing, and (3) that, after considering all the evidence and argument, it continued to believe the indicated sentence was appropriate. (56 C.4th 577, 578.)

(e) Here, the proper remedy is to remand to the trial court to resolve the ambiguity. If on remand to rehear and reconsider the plea, the trial court makes clear that its previously indicated sentence represented its best judgment as to the appropriate punishment for this defendant and the defendant's offenses, without extending leniency to secure a plea, then it must reinstate the judgment. (56 C.4th 578, 587.)

(f) An indicated sentence may contemplate the court's exercise of its sentencing discretion under P.C. 1385. Encroachment on the prosecution's charging authority must be distinguished from proper sentencing discretion. Here, the prosecution's argument that the trial court acted in excess of its jurisdiction by relying on P.C. 1385 in indicating its sentence is rejected. (56 C.4th 579.)

(g) An indicated sentence may also contemplate the court's exercise of discretion to dismiss a prior strike. When a court has invoked its statutory power to dismiss a strike allegation, it has not engaged in plea bargaining. Thus, the three strikes law does not limit a trial court's power to fashion an indicated sentence. (56 C.4th 582.)

Witkin References

On plea bargaining generally, see 4 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Pretrial Proceedings, §339 et seq.

On separation of powers doctrine in plea bargaining, see 4 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Pretrial Proceedings, §346.

On power to strike prior convictions under three strikes law, see 3 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Punishment, §439 et seq.

On dismissal in furtherance of justice under P.C. 1385, see 5 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Criminal Trial, §465 et seq.

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Last updated
Monday, August 18, 2014