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Justices hear plea modification case as Senate acts on similar bill

January 26, 2018

Before 2014, it was a cut-and-dry issue: fixed-sentence plea agreements meant an offender would serve out the terms of their plea, with no chance to change it. But after 2014 legislation and a 2016 Indiana Court of Appeals decision, the Indiana Supreme Court must now decide whether such agreements may be modified.

From a judicial perspective, Thursday’s oral argument in State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford, 39S04-1712-CR-00749, traces back to 2014, when the Jefferson Circuit Court sentenced Pebble Stafford to a fixed term pursuant to a plea agreement. Three years later, the trial court granted Stafford’s request to reduce her sentence to probation, finding she had been rehabilitated as much as possible in the Department of Correction.

Stafford’s counsel pursued a modification — previously unheard of in fixed plea agreements — under the revised language of Indiana Code section 35-38-1-17(l), which was updated as part of the 2014 criminal code reform legislation and subsequently amended in 2015. That statute provides that “(a) person may not waive their right to sentence modification … as part of a plea agreement,” and further holds that, “Any purported wavier of the right to sentence modification…in a plea agreement is invalid and unenforceable as against public policy.”

James Pattison, Stafford’s counsel who argued before the Indiana justices on Thursday, said that language sends a strong and unequivocal message: no plea agreements, even fixed agreements, can completely waive the right to sentence modification. That means the inherent waiver previously accepted as part of fixed pleas is now “invalid and unenforceable,” Pattison said.

Because of the statute’s strong language, the trial court had discretion to suspend Stafford’s sentence to probation, despite the fact that she agreed to a fixed plea, Pattison said. Further, considering the Indiana Constitution provides for a reform-based penal system, offenders such as Stafford who are found to have been sufficiently rehabilitated through their time in the DOC should be allowed to seek release once that rehabilitation is complete, he said.

But Ellen Meilaender, counsel for the state, said the language of subsection (l) prohibits only specific provisions within a plea agreement that explicitly waives the right to modification. Had the General Assembly intended to waive all avenues of modification, lawmakers would have used language prohibiting waivers “by means of” a plea agreement, rather than “as part of” one.

Subsection (l) produces the same result when read in conjunction with subsection (e), Meilaender said. In (e), the statute allows a court to reduce or suspend a sentence to another sentence “that the court was authorized to impose at the time of sentencing.” That means if a fixed-sentence plea did not allow for modifications at the time of sentencing, a court would not have discretion to modify the sentence later, she said. Or, if the agreement provided a certain sentencing range, then the court could only modify the sentence within that range.

Thursday’s oral arguments came just hours before the Indiana Senate voted on Senate Bill 64, a measure that addresses the very same issue. Born of the Court of Appeals’ Stafford decision, SB 64 would allow for fixed plea modifications only if the prosecutor consents. Bill author Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said the opinion in Stafford was a misinterpretation of the legislature’s intent when it revised subsection (l).

SB 64 passed the Senate 40-8 and is now headed to the House of Representatives. Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would divest courts of their discretion to modify sentences. But Young said longstanding sentencing practices have not allowed for modification of fixed plea agreements, and SB 64 is meant to codify that practice.

The bill was a topic of discussion during Thursday’s oral arguments, with justices Geoffrey Slaughter and Mark Massa asking why the court would need to act on the modification issue if SB 64 is passed and has retroactive effect, as the original amendments to subsection (l) did. In response, Meilaender noted there would likely be litigation to determine the retroactive application of SB 64, but a Supreme Court ruling in Stafford would abrogate the need for that litigation.

Thursday’s arguments can be watched here.

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