Argued: March 9, 2015
Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No.: CT89-1205B
Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts, Cathell, Dale R. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.
In Maryland, "[a]n illegal sentence is a sentence 'not permitted by law.'" State v. Wilkins, 393 Md. 269, 273, 900 A.2d 765, 767–68 (2006) (citation omitted). Pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-345(a), a "court may correct an illegal sentence at any time." This Court has "held that a sentence that exceeds the sentence to which the parties agreed as part of a plea agreement is an illegal sentence within the meaning of Rule 4-345(a)." Cuffley v. State, 416 Md. 568, 575 n.1, 7 A.3d 557, 561 n.1 (2010) (emphasis added) (citing Dotson v. State, 321 Md. 515, 521–22, 583 A.2d 710, 713 (1991)). In this case, we consider whether a sentence is illegal under Rule 4-345(a) when a sentencing court imposes a sentence below the sentence agreed to in a binding plea agreement without the State's consent.
FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
In 1989, a Prince George's County grand jury indicted Petitioner, Tommy Garcia Bonilla, on two counts of first degree murder and several other serious crimes. Count I of the indictment charged Bonilla with the first degree murder of Jose Lozano, and Count III charged Bonilla with the first degree murder of Ruth Vasquez.
At an August 28, 1990 hearing in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Bonilla pleaded guilty to Counts I and III pursuant to a binding plea agreement with the State. This agreement provided that Bonilla would, if called by the State, testify truthfully against one of his co-defendants, Freddy DeLeon, and would plead guilty to Counts I and III. In exchange, the State agreed that Bonilla would receive a sentence of life imprisonment on Count III with a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment, with all but 20 years suspended, on Count I. The State further agreed that it would withdraw its notice of intent to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and would enter a nolle prosequi to the remaining counts in the indictment. This was presented to the judge as a proposed binding plea agreement. After a proffer of facts by the State,  the hearing judge determined that Bonilla was knowingly and voluntarily pleading guilty and accepted his guilty pleas. The hearing judge then approved the plea agreement-stating on the record that he was "bound" by its terms-and postponed sentencing until after DeLeon's trial.
On February 20, 1991, having fulfilled his obligation to testify truthfully against DeLeon, Bonilla appeared before the Circuit Court for sentencing. When outlining the sentencing terms of the plea agreement, defense counsel reversed the terms-incorrectly stating that the Parties agreed to a sentence of life imprisonment on Count I and a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment, with all but 20 years suspended, on Count III. The State did not recognize this error and agreed with the sentence presented by defense counsel. Consistent with the Parties' representations, the court sentenced Bonilla to life imprisonment on Count I and a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment, with all but 20 years suspended, on Count III.
Over two decades later, on November 7, 2011, Bonilla filed a Motion to Correct Illegal Sentence and Motion for Credit Against Time Spent in Custody, arguing that his sentence on Count I was illegal because it "exceed[ed] the sentence agreed upon by the parties under the terms of the binding plea agreement." In response, the State filed a Motion to Correct the Entire Sentence, contending that the sentences on Count I and Count III were illegal because they deviated from the binding plea agreement. On February 7, 2012, the Circuit Court issued a Memorandum and Order, concluding that the sentences on both counts were illegal and ordering a resentencing "in accordance with the original plea agreement." At the resentencing hearing, the Circuit Court resentenced Bonilla to life imprisonment on Count III and a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment, with all but 20 years suspended, on Count I. Bonilla appealed.
In a reported opinion authored by Judge Salmon, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the sentencing court, agreeing that Bonilla's original sentence on Count III was illegal because it was below the binding plea agreement. Bonilla v. State, 217 Md.App. 299, 92 A.3d 595 (2014), cert. granted, 440 Md. 114, 99 A.3d 778 (2014). Bonilla petitioned for writ of certiorari, which this Court granted to answer the following question:
Did the Court of Special Appeals err by affirming the Circuit Court's judgment that a sentence below a binding plea agreement constitutes an illegal sentence [within the meaning of Rule 4-345(a)]?
Because we answer no, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court ...