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Breach of Plea Agreement Results in New Sentencing Hearing

Most criminal cases are resolved by plea agreement rather than trial. Plea agreements are a critical part of the judicial process. Given the temporal and financial resources expended for a jury trial (including the time expended by court staff, judges, attorneys, jurors, and witnesses), it is not possible for all criminal charges to involve a trial. In most cases, prosecutors and defense counsel can evaluate the available evidence and arrive at a reasonable plea bargain which both satisfies the interests of the state and offers the defendant enough incentive to waive his or her trial rights. Defendants who enter a plea agreement must be able to rely on the promises made in exchange for the agreed plea.

In the recent case of State v. Bright, M2014-01992-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 8-31-2015), the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new sentencing hearing with a different judge, upon a finding that a prosecutor had breached the plea agreement.

In the Bright case, the defendant had entered an agreement by which he would plead guilty to a felony drug offense (waiving his trial rights). Because sentencing issues remained which were not covered in the agreement, the terms provided that there would be a subsequent sentencing hearing to determine the sentence. But as part of the agreement, the prosecutor promised not to bring up at that hearing or argue that the defendant had pending criminal charges in another county.

When the sentencing hearing occurred, the prosecutor nevertheless elected to cross examine a witness about the fact that the defendant had those pending charges. Then the prosecutor argued the defendant's "record of criminal activity." On appeal of the resulting sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined the prosecutor had breached the plea agreement by bringing up those pending charges which the prosecutor had agreed not to address at the hearing. The remedy was to remand the case for a new sentencing hearing with a different judge, in which those particular charges would not be mentioned or used. Typically, any prior criminal activity is something proper to address at a sentencing hearing. But in this case it was not, as it was one of the terms of the plea agreement that those charges not be used.

For more information on plea agreements in criminal cases, contact Hindman & Associates.

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