Monday, March 19, 2007

Solorzano v. State (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed March 19, 2007--Opinion by Judge Irma Raker.

Appellant was indicted by the Grand Jury for Prince George's County for attempted first degree murder, first degree assault, second degree assault, and two counts of carrying a dangerous weapon with the intent to injure an individual in an unlawful manner. He agreed to plead guilty to attempted first degree murder in exchange for the State dismissing the remaining counts of the indictment and to recommend to the trial court that the sentence not be greater than the upper limit of the recommended range established by the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines, in this case twelve to twenty years.

At trial, the State provided a factual basis upon which to accept the plea, followed by a colloquy between the court and appellant stating, in essence, that if appellant's pre-sentencing investigation warranted a greater sentence than the parties anticipated, appellant could, in fact, receive a greater sentence than twenty years. Appellant stated he understood and entered a plea of guilty. At sentencing, dialogue between the court and appellant restated the terms of the negotiation, and the court inquired whether the appellant understood he could receive up to a term of life imprisonment reasoning that " . . . the State has agreed not to recommend more than twenty years in this case but the Court is not bound to that recommendation and could in fact sentence up to life in prison." The court subsequently sentenced appellant to life in prison with all but fifty years suspended. The Court of Special Appeals denied timely motions by appellant seeking specific performance of the plea agreement and a motion to vacate his guilty plea.

Whether a trial court has violated the terms of a plea agreement is a question of law to be reviewed de novo according to the reasonable understanding of the defendant when he pled guilty. Because plea agreements are similar to contracts, "contract principles should generally guide the determination of the proper remedy of a broken plea agreement." The trial court may accept a guilty plea only after it determines, upon an examination of the defendant on the record if it is in open court, that (1) the defendant is pleading voluntarily, with an understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea, and (2) that there is a factual basis for the plea. Rule 4-242(c).

Rule 4-243(c)(1) makes clear that a trial court is under no obligation to accept any particular sentence agreed upon by the State and a defendant. However, Rule 4-243(c)(3) makes equally clear that if the trial judge approves a plea agreement, the trial court is required to fulfill the terms of that agreement if the defendant pled guilty in reliance on the court's acceptance. Although the trial court indicated that it could sentence appellant to a term of incarceration greater than twenty years if the sentencing guidelines were greater than the recommendation, the court never indicated that if the agreement was within the guidelines that the sentence could be greater. The obvious interpretation of the judge's remarks is that if the guidelines were greater than twenty years, then and only then, the defendant could receive a greater sentence.

Therefore, this Court held that the trial court accepted the terms of the plea agreement, that appellant pled guilty in reliance on the court's acceptance, and that as such, defendant was entitled to specific performance of the terms of that agreement.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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