COA: Plea deals can’t waive right to sentence modification

Offenders who enter into plea agreements cannot waive future sentence modification under the plain language of a reform passed in 2014, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

The appellate panel affirmed a sentence modification entered by the trial court in State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford, 39A04-1705-CR-930. Stafford had been sentenced to six years in the Department of Correction after she pleaded guilty in Wayne Circuit Court to Class B felony dealing in a controlled substance, Class C felony battery and Class B misdemeanor possession of substance to interfere with a screening test in June 2014.

Earlier this year, Stafford sought and received a sentence modification after the Jefferson Circuit Court found she had completed several programs and DOC could offer no further rehabilitation. The court suspended the remainder of her sentence to probation with monitoring by the community corrections department.

The state appealed, but the COA affirmed the trial court, citing a 2014 amendment to I.C. § 35-38-1-17(1). Judge John Baker wrote for the court that criticized what he described as “the State’s tortured interpretation of the plain statutory language.”

The General Assembly “plainly stated that a person may not waive the right to sentence modification as part of a plea agreement — any plea agreement — and went a step further, cautioning that any such purported waiver is invalid, unenforceable, and against public policy,” Baker wrote. The court also rejected state arguments that the trial court lacked sentence-modification authority.

“In this case, the trial court explicitly found that Stafford has completed many programs while incarcerated, has a solid plan in place for her reentry into society, and has been rehabilitated to the extent it is possible to do so during her incarceration," Baker said. "Under these circumstances, the trial court did not err by granting Stafford’s motion to modify in this case.”

However, the trial court did lack the authority to suspend the balance of Stafford’s sentence to probation, the COA concluded. It remanded the matter to the trial court with instructions to omit any suspension of the six-year term to probation and to determine whether a direct placement to community corrections would be appropriate.

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