The majority of criminal cases that come to Court result in a plea agreement, rather than an actual trial. In Maryland it is not unusual for the prosecution and defense to agree on the parameters of the plea including potential punishment, and to ask the trial judge to agree to be bound by the terms of the agreement before sentencing. Maryland’s highest court recently addressed what happens when the sentence actually imposed is actually less severe than the minimum agreed to by the defense, in an opinion called Stephanie Smith v. State.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion indicates that the defendant was indicted for insurance fraud, and charged with theft in excess of $10,000. The defense attorney and prosecutor negotiated an agreement for the defendant to plead guilty, with an agreement that the defendant not be sentenced to more than 5 years of jail time with all that suspended except for a minimum of 30 to 90 days incarceration, followed by 5 years probation. The agreement was also that the defendant would pay restitution to the victim of over $47,000.
The trial judge agreed to be bound by the terms of the deal, and then found that the State’s proffer of what the evidence would show was sufficient to establish guilt. The judge then heard the personal circumstances of the defendant, including that she had no criminal record and was employed.
The trial judge then announced that he was going to give the defendant a break, as he was concerned that having a criminal conviction would cause her to lose her job and be unable to pay restitution. The judge then agreed to grant the defendant probation before judgment, meaning she would not have a criminal conviction on her record, and that she could serve 60 days of home detention rather than incarceration.
The State objected to the sentence, and the intermediate appellate Court agreed that the sentence was illegal since it was below the minimum terms of the plea agreement.
The Court of Appeals agreed. It noted that no reasonable person in the position of the defendant would have believed that under this deal there would be no criminal conviction, or that she would not do any jail time. Since the sentence was too lenient that the minimum agreed to by the parties, the State did not receive the benefit of its bargain.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation