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Supreme Court remands sentence modification cases after new statute takes effect

July 16, 2018

The Indiana Supreme Court has remanded two cases that it previously granted transfer to back to the Indiana Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of a new statute addressing permissible sentence modifications.

The cases of State v. Stafford, 86 N.E.3d 190 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017)  and Rodriguez v. State, 91 N.E.3d 1033 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018), were sent back to the lower appellate court on Thursday after the 2018 version of Senate Enrolled Act 64 took effect on July 1. That bill amended Indiana Code sections 35-35-1-2 and 35-38-1-17 to explicitly define when trial courts can modify fixed-sentence plea modifications.

Specifically, the amendment to I.C. 35-35-1-2 holds that courts are bounds by the terms of a plea agreement that are in place “at the time of sentencing and with respect to sentence modification under I.C. 35-38-1-17.” The latter statute was amended to hold that fixed-plea modifications are only permissible with the consent of the prosecutor, and to provide that defendants can waive their right to “have a court modify a sentence and impose a sentence not authorized by the plea agreement.”

Indianapolis Republican Sen. Mike Young, who authored SEA 64, said his bill was meant to codify the long-standing practice of courts upholding the exact terms of a fixed-sentence plea agreement unless there is an agreement between the parties to modify the sentence. That practice was called into question in Stafford, where an appellate court panel ruled that defendants cannot waive future sentence modification under a 2014 legislative amendment.

The amendment in question was made to I.C. 35-38-1-17(l), which at that time held that “(a) person may not waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement.” According to Young, that language was meant to prohibit provisions in plea agreements that explicitly waived the right to sentence modification.

However, the Stafford court found that subsection (l), when harmonized with I.C. 35-35-3-3(e) and 35-38-1-17(e), preserved a defendant’s right to modification even in fixed plea situations. Thus, the panel allowed a modification of Pebble Stafford’s sentence, even though she was sentenced pursuant to a fixed plea agreement.

A majority of the Rodriguez panel applied the Stafford holding to allow for the modification of Alberto Rodriguez’s fixed-plea sentence, though Senior Judge Robert Rucker dissented. The former justice said the General Assembly did not intend “to repeal long-standing statutory authority or to overrule long-standing judicial precedent by the enactment of (subsection (l)),” referencing the 2014 amendment. Young offered similar logic when presenting SEA 64.

Prior to the Thursday orders  – which were signed by Justice Steven David as acting chief – the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Stafford in January and granted transfer to Rodriguez in March. The COA opinions in each case remain vacated on remand.

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