The effect of legislative changes to state sentencing laws was at center in oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday.
In the case of State of Indiana v. Wallace Irvin Smith, 45S05-1611-CR-00572, Wallace Smith was charged with Class D felony theft in 2000 after agreeing to a plea deal that precluded him “from asking for Misdemeanor treatment in this cause.” However, in 2014, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law allowing Class D felony convictions prior to July 1, 2014, to be converted to Class A misdemeanors as long as certain prerequisites were met.
Smith met those prerequisites and petitioned the court to convert his sentence to a misdemeanor, and both the trial court and Court of Appeals agreed. However, Tyler Banks, counsel for the state, told the justices during oral arguments that the words “in this cause” precludes Smith from seeking misdemeanor treatment even under the new statute because the court is still dealing with the same cause that began in 2000.
Banks argued that the new statute is merely a different route to the same sort of relief, and such relief is prohibited under the terms of Smith’s plea agreement. But Adam Sedia, counsel for Smith, said the 2014 statute is a different form of relief designed to reward good behavior.
Further, Sedia argued that Smith’s plea agreement would have had to include language that prevented him from seeking “future relief” in order to prevent him from seeking relief under the 2014 statue, but that language was not included.
Similarly, Justice Robert Rucker told Banks that at the time the plea agreement was signed, the parties were agreeing to the provision that Smith could not argue for misdemeanor treatment at his sentencing hearing and were not considering any potential legislative changes to come. Banks agreed, but went on to say that meant Smith believed he was foregoing his only opportunity to seek misdemeanor treatment because he did not anticipate future legislative changes.
“Just because the Legislature opened up a new procedure to get to the same relief does not make what they agreed to ambiguous,” Banks told the court.
Justice Steve David asked Sedia if there was any limit to subsequent legislative action and suggested that a line could be drawn between guilty pleas and guilty jury verdicts. If a guilty plea is entered, then the plea agreement could be treated as a binding contract, David said, while the resulting sentence from a guilty verdict could have more flexibility to seek relief.
But Sedia said that there is no limit to the Legislature’s power and quoted existing jurisprudence which provides that the Legislature has “broad power over the transactions of men and may enact lawful restrictions upon the liberty of contract.”
“That applies no less to plea agreements than it does to contracts of private parties,” Sedia said.
But Banks told the justices that allowing Smith to seek relief under the 2014 statute would deprive the state of the benefit it legally agreed to when it signed the plea agreement.