Justices grant transfer in 2 fixed-sentence modification cases

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The Indiana Supreme Court has agreed to hear argument in two cases with similar scenarios concerning the trial court’s ability to modify fixed-sentence plea agreements.

Justices unanimously granted transfer in State of Indiana v. Pebble Stafford39A04-1705-CR-930 and Alberto Baiza Rodriguez v. State of Indiana, 20A03-1704-CR-724 last week, denying 23 other petitions to transfer.

In Stafford, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision to suspend to probation the remainder of Stafford’s sentence for drug-related offenses with monitoring by the community corrections department after it concluded she had completed several programs and that no further rehabilitation could be offered to her by the DOC.

In its decision, the COA cited a 2014 amendment to Indiana Code § 35-38-1-17(1), in which Judge John Baker criticized what he described as “the State’s tortured interpretation of the plain statutory language.”

Baker argued that the Indiana General Assembly plainly stated a person may not waive the right to sentence modification as part of a plea agreement, and that “any such purported waiver is invalid, unenforceable, and against public policy.”

A divided COA panel ruled likewise in Rodriguez, where a similar conclusion was determined. In that case, Alberto Rodriguez was charged with multiple charges related to drunken driving and ultimately pleaded guilty to Class A misdemeanor operating while intoxicated and to being a habitual vehicular substance offender.

The agreement required Rodriguez to serve six years on the Elkhart County Work Release program in exchange for the state dropping all other charges against him. An Indiana appellate panel reversed a trial court’s denial of his motion to modify the agreement one year later when Rodriquez argued his placement caused undue hardship on his family.

There, the majority relied on precedent from Stafford, arguing that when harmonized with sections 35-35-3-3(e) and 35-38-1-17(e), Section 35-38-1-17(l) preserves a defendant’s right to modification in fixed-plea agreements.

Meanwhile, justices divided on another sentencing appeal, this one in a memorandum decision in which the Court of Appeals affirmed a 16-year prison sentence imposed on a man convicted of Level 3 felony dealing in methamphetamine. Justices voted 3-2 to deny the petition to transfer in Arvis Harrison Crawhorn v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1668. Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Christopher Goff dissented and would have heard Crawhorn’s appeal.

A full list of the cases for the week ending April 12 can be viewed here.

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