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Justices again will consider fixed-sentence plea modifications

March 20, 2018

The Indiana Supreme Court will once again consider when, if ever, fixed-sentence plea agreements can be modified. The court granted transfer to a second sentence-modification appeal after recently hearing a similar case.

The justices last week granted transfer in Alberto Baiza Rodriguez v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-143, two months after a divided Indiana Court of Appeals instructed the Elkhart Superior Court to reconsider the denial of a sentence modification to Alberton Rodriguez. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to Class A misdemeanor operating while intoxicated and to being a habitual offender pursuant to an agreement that required him to serve six years on work release.

Rodriguez moved for a sentence modification one year after his sentencing, alleging his placement had caused undue hardship on his family. The trial court denied his motion on statutory grounds, but appellate judges Terry Crone and Paul Mathias reversed.

Crone, writing for the majority, determined that Indiana Code section 35-38-1-17(l), when harmonized with I.C. 35-35-3-3(e) and 35-38-1-17(e), preserves a defendant’s right to modification in fixed-plea situations. Section (l) holds that a person is not permitted to “waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement.”  

Crone and Mathias based their holding in part on the ruling in State v. Stafford, 86 N.E.3d 190, 193 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), which held that, “Unless and until the General Assembly clarifies the statute at issue, it clearly and unambiguously states that offenders ‘may not waive the right to sentence modification … as part of a plea agreement.’” Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, sought to provide that clarification through Senate Enrolled Act 64, which allows modifications of fixed-sentence pleas only with prosecutorial consent.

Young claimed section (l) was added to the statute to prohibit provisions within plea agreements that explicitly waived the right to sentence modification, not to overturn long-standing sentencing practices. Former Justice and now-Senior Judge Robert Rucker agreed in his dissent to the Rodriguez decision, writing the General Assembly did not intend “to repeal long-standing statutory authority or to overrule long-standing judicial precedent by the enactment of (section (l)).”

The General Assembly passed SB 64 earlier this month and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law on March 13. Meanwhile, the Indiana Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Stafford case on Jan. 26, but has not yet issued an opinion. Oral arguments in Rodriguez have not been scheduled.

The justices also denied transfer to 11 cases last week, including to Jonathan Webster v. State of Indiana, 71A03-1610-CR-2319. Justices Mark Massa, Geoffrey Slaughter and Christopher Goff voted to deny transfer to the child molesting case, but Justice Steven David and Chief Justice Loretta Rush dissented. David wrote in a dissenting opinion – which Rush joined – that the state failed to prove Jonathan Webster molested his niece after June 30, 2008, the “effective date” of the applicable statute.

The full list of transfer actions can be read here.


 

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