COA: Despite waiver in plea, man may appeal allegedly unlawful sentence

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A man who waived his appellate rights as part of a plea agreement has been granted permission to appeal his 25-year executed sentence as being contrary to law.

In July 2016, Trey Fields pleaded guilty to six felony charges including two counts of stalking and one count of each of battery, disarming a law enforcement officer, resisting law enforcement and escape. He was also found to be a habitual offender.

Pursuant to the plea deal, Fields agreed that he “hereby waive(d) the right to appeal any sentence imposed by the Court, including the right to seek appellate review of the sentence pursuant to Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B) …,” as long as he was not sentenced to more than 25 years executed. The Madison Circuit Court then sentenced him to 25 years executed plus 12 years suspended, vacating one of his stalking convictions.

Then in August 2020, Fields filed a petition for permission to file a belated notice of appeal, asserting the trial court had used an improper aggravator — reoffense against the same victim — in sentencing him. He argued that his Level 4 felony stalking conviction had already been enhanced from a Level 6 felony because the same victim had been involved in a previous incident. Also, he said he was not informed that his appellate waiver included a waiver of his right to challenge the lawfulness of his sentence.

The trial court denied the petition without a hearing, but the Court of Appeals reversed, remanding with instructions that Fields be allowed to file his belated notice of appeal.

In a Tuesday opinion, Judge Edward Najam wrote that while Fields agreed to a 25-year sentencing cap, “he did not agree to be sentenced either to the full twenty-five-year executed term, or to an additional twelve years suspended, based on an improper aggravator.” Najam likened Fields’ case to Haddock v. State, 112 N.E. 3d 763 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018), trans. denied, where a defendant was permitted to appeal a sentence that was based on an improper aggravator, despite an appellate waiver in his plea agreement.

“Likewise, here, Fields asserted in his petition for permission to file a belated notice of appeal that his sentence was contrary to law because the trial court had used an improper aggravator when it sentenced him, namely, that he had reoffended against the same victim, which is an element of stalking, as a Level 4 felony,” Najam wrote. “Accordingly, we hold that Fields is an eligible defendant pursuant to Post-Conviction Rule 2.”

Further, Fields’ failure to timely file a notice of appeal was not due to any fault on his part, Najam wrote, noting that the trial court did not advise him of his right to appeal a sentence that is contrary to law. Finally, the appellate panel determined Fields demonstrated diligence in requesting permission to file a belated notice of appeal.

“Here, four years had passed between the date the court sentenced Fields and the date he filed his petition for permission to file a belated notice of appeal,” Najam wrote. “But … he did not learn that he could appeal his sentence as contrary to law until he met with an attorney in May 2020.

“Then, once he learned that he could appeal his sentence, only three months passed before he filed his petition,” the judge concluded. “Because Fields filed his petition within a reasonable time after he had learned of his right to appeal his sentence, we hold that he has demonstrated that he was diligent in requesting permission to file a belated notice of appeal.”

The case is Trey M. Fields v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-1799.

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