Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Rankin v. State (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed April 30, 2007--Opinion by Judge Patrick Woodward.

Consequent to various burglary and sex offense charges, Rankin entered into a plea agreement with the State in 1999. The agreement allowed Rankin to plead to the count charging conspiracy to commit a second degree sex offense and limited the sentencing to no more than three years. The trial court imposed a sentence of twenty years with all but three years suspended, followed by a period of probation of five years.

The filed Plea / Sentence Agreement provided "Defendant will plead guilty to:" and, handwritten on the form was "Conspiracy to Commit 2 Sex Offense (Amended count #7) (Alford plea)." The form recited "State will dismiss other charges/cases as follows:" with everything after charges crossed out. It also stated "Court will," (then in handwriting) "impose an active cap of no more than 3 years. Court may impose additional suspended time." On the next line was printed "There is no other sentencing limitation except that provided by law."

Approximately 13 months after Rankin was released from incarceration, the court was informed by the Department of Parole and Probation that Rankin committed a new offense. Rankin subsequently admitted violating probation and was sentenced to serve ten years of the suspended sentence consecutive to the new sentence imposed on the case forming the basis for Rankin's violation of probation. Rankin then filed a Motion to Correct an Illegal Sentence, claiming that the plea agreement did not include any term of probation. The trial court denied his motion, stating that the agreement "made no comment about the length of terms of probation" and that the terms imposed "were within the limits provided for by statute."

In determining a defendant's reasonable understanding of the agreement at the time he entered into it, the terms implied by the plea agreement as well as those expressly provided are considered. Relying on Md. Code, Article 27 Sec. 641A, effective at the time of Rankin's sentencing, the language of the statute indicated that when a trial court suspends a sentence, it will impose probation as a matter of course. On appeal, the Court reviewing de novo found it clear that a probationary period was implicit in the terms of the plea agreement. Although the prosecutor did not specifically discuss probation, he told the trial court that the only sentencing limitation was that the "active cap," i.e., the executed portion of the sentence, was three years. The written agreement recited that there could be additional suspended time and that there was "no other sentencing limitation except that provided by law." Thus, the agreement gave the trial court the authority to suspend part of the sentence and impose probation. Further, because a suspended sentence would be meaningless without probation, the Court held the right to impose a period of probation is included in any plea agreement that provides for a suspended sentence. Held that the sentence imposed was in accordance with the plea agreement that Rankin entered into.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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