A bill meant to codify longstanding sentencing practices related to plea agreements is headed to the governor after it passed the Indiana House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Sen. Mike Young filed Senate Bill 64 in response to the Indiana Court of Appeals’ ruling in State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford, 39S04-1712-CR-00749. The Stafford court determined amended language in Indiana Code section 35-38-1-17(l) prohibited the waiver of the right to sentence modification in all circumstances, even fixed-sentence plea agreements.
The appellate court reached the same conclusion in Alberto Baiza Rodriguez v. State of Indiana, 20A03-1704-CR-724, Young and members of the legal community said the court misinterpreted the amended statutory language. While I.C. 35-38-1-17(l) does not permit a person to “waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement,” the Indianapolis Republican said the prohibition was meant to refer to explicit waiver provisions in plea agreements.
Both prosecutors and defenders agreed with Young’s assessment of the statutory language, with representatives from both the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana Public Defender Commission telling lawmakers that longstanding sentencing practice has not allowed for sentence modifications in fixed plea situations. The Indiana Supreme Court is currently deciding the Stafford case after hearing oral argument last month, while the legislature has been crafting its own response to Stafford through SB 64.
Young’s bill would allow for modification of fixed plea agreements only with prosecutorial consent. Further, when a defendant enters an open plea agreement, SB 64 would allow the judge to later modify the sentence only within the sentencing range included in the original plea agreement.
The bill would also amend section (l), the portion of I.C. 35-38-1-17 that has caused the apparent split between the Court of Appeals and legislature. The amended language would explicitly hold that the statute “does not prohibit the finding of a waiver of the right to: have a court modify a sentence and impose a sentence not authorized by the plea agreement … .”
The amended language is meant to reflect the fact that plea agreements operate like contracts, Rep. Thomas Washburne, R-Evansville, told the House before Tuesday’s vote. Aside from codifying that contractual nature, SB 64 was also amended in the Senate to require courts to ensure defendants understand the implications of their plea agreements prior to accepting those agreements.