Divided court affirms sentence that exceeds statutory authority

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A man who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and whose sentence exceeded statutory authority must nonetheless serve the term, a divided Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Travis Koontz was charged with misdemeanor false informing, driving while suspended, and operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He pleaded guilty to the latter two charges and agreed to a sentence of 365 days in jail with 18 days to be executed and 365 days of probation for the Class B misdemeanor driving while suspended conviction, along with 60 days in jail with 18 days to be executed and 365 days of probation for the Class C misdemeanor drunken-driving conviction. The sentences were to run concurrently.

Though the maximum sentence for a Class B misdemeanor is 180 days and the maximum term for any misdemeanor is one year, two of the three judges ruled that the plea agreement between Koontz and the state prevailed.

“Concluding that Koontz waived any error in his sentence by consenting to the sentence as part of a plea agreement, we affirm,” Chief Judge Margret Robb wrote in Travis Koontz v. State of Indiana,  29A05-1202-CR-77. Judge Cale Bradford joined in the opinion.

But Judge John Baker wrote that had Koontz gone to trial and been convicted, at least one of the initial charges against him would have constituted double-jeopardy, and that Koontz received no benefit from the plea agreement.

“I acknowledge that our Supreme Court has made it clear that “[a] defendant ‘may not enter a plea agreement calling for an illegal sentence, benefit from that sentence, and then later complain that it was an illegal sentence.’” Lee v. State, 816 N.E.2d 35, 40 (Ind. 2004) (quoting Collins v. State, 509 N.E.2d 827, 833 (Ind. 1987)),” Baker wrote.

“The practical effect is that only the charge of class B misdemeanor false informing was dismissed pursuant to the plea agreement. Nevertheless, Koontz was exposed to a combined term of imprisonment and probation that exceeded statutory limits. Accordingly, in cases where the offenses are misdemeanors or minor felonies, the potential for abuse could be too great to justify permitting the imposition of illegal sentences through plea agreements. Therefore, I would reverse,” Baker wrote.

But the majority found that Koontz had benefited from the plea deal and appealed the sentence only after he violated terms of probation and was ordered to serve 240 days in jail.

“Had the trial court had discretion in sentencing Koontz, he could have received a sentence of up to one year imprisonment, and by virtue of the plea, he was to serve only eighteen days. The dissent believes that ‘where the offenses are misdemeanors or minor felonies,’ … the potential for abuse is too great and the benefit too small to justify allowing an illegal sentence to stand because it was the result of a plea bargain. We do not believe it is our place to categorically declare the Supreme Court’s position inapplicable to misdemeanors,” the opinion states.



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