Supreme Court again hears arguments in fixed-plea sentence modification cases

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The Indiana Supreme Court once again granted transfer in two cases dealing with issues of modified fixed-plea sentences, hearing back-to-back oral arguments last week.

Justices on Thursday heard the cases of State v. Stafford 86 N.E.3d 190 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017) and Rodriguez v. State91 N.E.3d 1033 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018). The high court last year remanded the cases to the Indiana Court of Appeals after a 2018 amendment was made to the statutes at question, Indiana Code sections 35-35-1-2 and 35-38-1-17.

Those statutory changes explicitly defined when trial courts could modify fixed-sentences — a point of contention in both cases. The appellate court previously backed the grant of Pebble Stafford’s sentence modification, citing a 2014 amendment to I.C. § 35-38-1-17(1) to support its decision.

Likewise, Rodriguez was denied a motion to modify his sentence because the trial court ruled Indiana statute deprived it of authority to modify his fixed-sentence plea agreement. However, the appellate court reversed that denial in finding the statute did not permit a person to “waive the right to sentence modification under this section as part of a plea agreement.”

On remand, one appellate panel upheld its initial decision in Rodriguez, while another reversed and remanded its ruling in Stafford, finding the trial court was unauthorized to amend the sentence pursuant to the 2018 amendment.

Representing Alberto Baiza Rodriguez, South Bend attorney Jessica Merino presented to the high court last week a continued argument that a retroactive application of the amended 2018 statute would violate Rodriquez’s constitutional rights under the state’s contract clause and would be fundamentally unfair. 

She also maintained that the prior version of the modification in statute is plain and unambiguous. Specifically, Merino noted her interpretation is based on I.C. 35-32-1-1, which she argued “provides the reasons why the legislature was making the change in 2014.”

Rodriguez’s position, she said, is that the state constitutional claims, regardless of the federal, would only apply if plea agreements were executed after 2014 and before 2018. She also stressed public policy regarding the statute, which produced concerns from Justice Steven David on her interpretation.

“… It seems to suggest, ‘Why encourage fixed pleas?’” David said. “… Am I going to offer a fixed plea if I can’t have some expectation that that fixed plea is a fixed plea?”

Attorney Ellen Meilaender, representing the state in both Rodriguez and Stafford, found issues with Rodriguez’s contract clause argument, pointing out that he did not contract as a term of his agreement the ability to have a future modification.

“If it had been a central undertaking, presumably he would have wanted to have added it,” Meilaender said. “The state thinks it was clear.”

She then noted that if the high court concluded a contract clause violation occurred, Rodriguez would only have a right to seek modification, but wouldn’t necessarily have a right to receive it.

Meilaender further asserted that the Indiana Legislature moved swiftly to express disagreement with the judiciary’s interpretation of the statute, prompting its 2018 amendments.

Lastly, she argued that harm would ensue if the high court sided with Rodriguez. Indiana courts would be deluged with four years of fixed-plea agreement appellants seeking modifications. Also, if the law that existed at the time an appellant entered a plea agreement could be changed down the road, then there would be unreliability on their bargains.

But Merino countered that contracts in such cases should be written differently if the state desires a different result.  

Jason Pattison, representing Stafford, similarly argued that the retroactive application of the amended statute would be unfair to his client.

“… In essence, the state's argument would allow people who are the least deserving, the more serious, the more violent offenders, the opportunity to modify their sentences while taking that right away from those people who might be more deserving, low-level offenders, nonviolent offenders, etc.,” he said. “And that violates the intent clearly of 35-32-1-1.”

Pattison then argued that Article I, section 18 of the Indiana Constitution should be interpreted to authorize trial courts to modify sentences upon a finding of reformation and an absence of dangerousness. No appellate or Supreme Court decision has held as such, he noted.

Granting trial courts that authority would provide a proper balance between the power of the prosecutor and judge when it comes to sentencing, Pattison continued.

“Given the (constitutional) directive that ‘The penal code shall be founded upon the principles of reformation, and not vindictive justice,’ and the fundamental freedoms we enjoy in this country … and the uniqueness of every individual, it makes more sense to allow (trial courts) constitutional authority to modify sentences of those truly rehabilitated, and who are not a danger to society, rather than allow them to languish in prisons after the constitutional purpose of criminal law has been accomplished,” Stafford argued on petition to transfer.

Full arguments in both cases can be viewed here.

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