California Court Must Honor Plea Agreement

      (CN) — An inmate’s original plea agreement must be honored even though the superior court allowed the prosecution to make a last-minute amendment to the criminal complaint that left the inmate with an indeterminate life sentence, the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday.
     Michael Cuero pleaded guilty in 2005 to causing bodily injury while driving under the influence and unlawful possession of a firearm. He also admitted to a single prior strike conviction and four prison priors.
     Under the original plea agreement, the prosecution dismissed a misdemeanor count and guaranteed Cuero a maximum of 14 years and 4 months in prison and 4 years of parole. San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles Ervin accepted the plea and entered an order stating that “the defendant is convicted thereby.”
     However, the day before Cuero’s scheduled sentencing, the state prosecutor moved to amend the criminal complaint to allege an additional prior strike conviction. If allowed, the addition would result in an indeterminate 64 years to life sentence under California’s three-strikes law.
     A different superior court judge than Ervin permitted the amendment. The judge then allowed Cuero to withdraw his guilty plea and enter into a new plea agreement calling for an indeterminate 25 years to life sentence.
     In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that the prosecution breached the plea agreement by seeking to amend the complaint after the deal was already finalized, and the judge failed to recognize that such a breach was a violation of Cuero’s rights.
     “[A] guilty plea seals the deal between the state and the defendant, and vests the defendant with ‘a due process right to enforce the terms of his plea agreement,'” U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote on behalf of the majority in a 25-page opinion.
     The agreement was final as soon as Judge Ervin accepted it, from there on bound by California contract law, Wardlaw said.
     “[B]y failing to interpret Cuero’s plea agreement consistently with California contract law, the Superior Court unreasonably applied federal law clearly established by the Supreme Court,” Wardlaw said.
     She added that allowing Cuero to withdraw his plea did not repair the harm done.
     “To the contrary: It exposed Cuero to the risk of going to trial and receiving an indeterminate 64 years to life sentence. This is hardly the ‘remedy’ Cuero would have elected had he properly been given a choice,” Wardlaw said.
     The majority explained that allowing Cuero to enter into a new plea agreement that called for an indeterminate 25 years to life did not make the modification legal, since the state would not have been able to pursue such a sentence in the first place had it not breached the original agreement.
     “Cuero had performed his part of the agreement by pleading guilty to the two felony charges, admitting a single prior strike, and conceding his four prison priors, giving the government the bargain it sought. Because Cuero had already performed, ‘fundamental fairness demands that the state be compelled to adhere to the agreement as well,'” Wardlaw said.
     Cuero must be granted federal habeas relief, the panel ruled, ordering the state to resentence him in accordance with the original plea agreement.
     But Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain disagreed. In his 37-page dissent, he claimed the majority incorrectly concluded that Cuero entered into a “written plea agreement” in which the government guaranteed that punishment would not be greater than 14 years and 4 months in prison.
     None of the documents or statements signed by Cuero or the prosecution includes this maximum sentence, O’Scannlain said, calling the promise “a figment of the majority’s imagination.”
     Rather, the prosecutor agreed in court “as a descriptive matter” that 14 years was the maximum prison term Cuero was facing at the time, O’Scannlain said.
     “Even assuming there was such a promise, a fair-minded jurist could conclude that the plea agreement was without constitutional significance before the entry of judgment. And, even if there were a breach of a constitutionally binding plea agreement, nothing in any Supreme Court decision clearly establishes that the state court was required to order specific performance,” O’Scannlain wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
     Cuero’s attorney, Devin Burstein, is happy with the decision.
     “I agree with the majority that there is simply no way to look at this record and suggest that there was not a plea agreement in place,” he said in an interview, adding that the case should not be controversial.
     “The idea that you plead guilty and give up all your rights in a contract with the government, whether federal or state, and that you are entitled to the benefit of that bargain, is pretty straightforward,” he added.
     The attorney called an unknown Ninth Circuit staff attorney the unsung hero of this case. The attorney found Cuero’s pro se petition and decided the case presented some real problems and that Cuero should be appointed counsel.
     “Cuero had gone pro se all the way, through state habeas, through a federal magistrate judge, through federal district court, and nobody had appointed counsel,” Burstein said. “Whomever that angel for Mr. Cuero is in the Ninth Circuit who took the time to dig into his petition was really the hero for him and really helped him to secure his constitutional rights.”
     The state did not immediately return a request for comment.

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