On remand, divided COA again allows modification of fixed-plea sentence

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals has once again reversed a trial court ruling holding that a man sentenced pursuant to a fixed plea agreement could not seek a sentence modification, with the appellate court finding instead on remand that statutory amendments to laws governing fixed pleas are not applicable in this case.

The appellate court first found in favor of a sentence modification for Alberto Baiza Rodriguez in January, overturning an Elkhart Superior Court ruling that would not allow Rodriguez to reduce his six-year work release sentence. Rodriguez, who was convicted on a drunken driving charge, argued before the COA last year that under Indiana Code section 35-38-1-17(l), he could not be precluded from seeking a modification.

A majority of the appellate panel agreed in the January 2018 opinion, finding that the statute – which at the time did not permit a person to “waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement” – unambiguously prohibited sentence modification waivers in all circumstances, including fixed-sentence agreements like Rodriguez’s. That decision was based on the 2017 ruling in State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford, 86 N.E. 3d 190, 193 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), trans. granted, which likewise found the statute did not permit modification waivers.

In response to the Stafford and Rodriguez holdings, the Indiana Legislature last year passed Senate Enrolled Act 64, which amended I.C. 35-38-1-17 and 35-35-1-2 to require courts to obtain consent from the prosecuting attorney before modifying a sentence entered pursuant to a fixed plea agreement. The bill also provided that when being sentenced pursuant to an open plea, courts may later resentence offenders only within the sentencing range included in the original plea agreement. Finally, the amended language now holds 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.”

Sen. Mike Young, the Indianapolis Republican who authored SEA 64, said both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that the holdings in Stafford and Rodriguez misinterpreted the language of the statute, which was only designed to prohibit explicit sentence modification waivers in plea agreements.  Similarly, former justice and now Senior Judge Robert Rucker dissented from the majority’s holding in Rodriguez, noting that even before the amendments, the statute provided that it did “not prohibit the finding of waiver of the right to sentence modification for any other reason” not included “as part of the plea agreement.”

“In essence, it does not appear the Legislature intended to repeal long-standing statutory authority or to overrule long-standing judicial precedent by the enactment of (section(l)),” Rucker wrote in January.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer to Stafford and Rodriguez last year but remanded both cases back to the COA for reconsideration in light of SEA 64’s amendments.

In reaffirming its ruling that Rodriguez could seek a sentence modification, an again-divided COA agreed with Rodriguez’s arguments that the changes made via SEA 64 were not retroactive. Further, the court found that retroactive application of the amendments would violate Rodriguez’s constitutional rights under the Contract Clause.

“On a more basic level, regardless of whether retroactive application of the 2018 amendments would substantially impair Rodriguez’s contractual rights under the plea agreement, it would be fundamentally unfair,” Judge Terry Crone wrote Friday in an opinion on remand in Alberto Baiza Rodriguez v. State of Indiana, 20A03-1704-CR-724. “As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated in (Elliot v. Bd. Of Sch. Trs. Of Madison Consol. Sch, 876 F.3d at 935, (7th Cir. 2017)), ‘It is not fair to change the rules so substantially when it is too late for the affected parties to change course.’”

The case was remanded for further proceedings, with Rucker once again dissenting by citing to “the reasons expressed in my earlier dissenting opinion….”

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