Argued: October 7, 2016
Court for Allegany County Case No. 01-K-15-16567
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty
consider whether a plea agreement entered into in the
District Court of Maryland remains binding once a defendant
files a de novo appeal to the circuit court,
pursuant to Courts & Judicial Proceedings (Cts. &
Jud. Proc.) §12-401. Keisha Ann Hartman
("Petitioner") pled guilty to a theft charge in the
District Court in exchange for the State's recommendation
that she receive no executed jail time. Both parties
satisfied the terms of the plea agreement, but the District
Court judge did not follow the State's recommendation,
instead imposing a sentence of thirty days'
incarceration. Thereafter, Petitioner filed a de
novo appeal to the circuit court. Prior to the de
novo proceeding, the State offered a new plea agreement
whereby, in exchange for Petitioner's guilty plea, the
State would recommend Petitioner receive thirty days'
incarceration. Petitioner subsequently filed a Motion to
Enforce the Plea Agreement that was presented to the circuit
court. After a hearing, the circuit court denied
reasons that follow, we shall affirm the judgment of the
Circuit Court for Allegany County.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
14, 2014, Petitioner was observed stealing several t-shirts,
hair color, and screen protectors, valued at approximately
$82.51, from a Walmart in Allegany County. Petitioner was
arrested and charged with theft under $100.
District Court, Petitioner and the State entered into a plea
agreement whereby Petitioner agreed to plead guilty to theft,
in exchange for the State's agreement to recommend no
executed jail time. Both parties acknowledged that the plea
agreement was not binding on the District Court. During the
District Court proceeding, the District Court judge found
Petitioner guilty. During the sentencing phase of the
hearing, the State recommended Petitioner not serve any jail
time. The State advised the court that in 2013, charges
against Petitioner for theft and credit card fraud were
placed on the stet docket; in 2011, charges for false
imprisonment and disorderly conduct were also placed on the
stet docket; and in 2007, bad check charges were also placed
on the stet docket. Finally, the State indicated that in
2006, in West Virginia, Petitioner was convicted for writing
a bad check and fraud. Petitioner's defense counsel noted
that Petitioner paid $205 to Walmart after receiving a demand
letter from Walmart's attorneys and that she was a single
mother with three children. Petitioner testified that
"[it was] just something that happened, [a]
mistake." In response, the District Court judge remarked
that Petitioner had "made a lot of mistakes[, ]"
and sentenced Petitioner to thirty days' incarceration.
Thereafter, Petitioner noted a timely de novo appeal
to the Circuit Court for Allegany County.
2, 2015, Petitioner entered a plea of not guilty and
requested a jury trial. The State subsequently offered
Petitioner a new plea agreement whereby Petitioner would
plead guilty in exchange for the State's recommendation
of 30 days' incarceration. On July 2, 2015, Petitioner
filed a Motion to Enforce the Plea Agreement in the circuit
court, arguing the State violated the terms of the District
Court plea agreement by altering its sentencing
recommendation from no incarceration to thirty days'
incarceration. During a hearing scheduled on July 28, 2015,
Petitioner argued that the terms of the District Court plea
agreement remained binding on the State during the de
novo appeal to the circuit court. In response, the State
argued that since the trial was de novo, the circuit
court considered the case anew, and therefore, no plea
agreement existed between the parties. The circuit court
agreed that on de novo appeal, the case began anew
for both the prosecution and the defense, and that the
District Court plea agreement was no longer enforceable.
timely filed an interlocutory appeal to the Court of Special
Appeals. Prior to briefing, the Court of Special Appeals
sua sponte transferred the case to this Court,
pursuant to Maryland Rule 8-132.
facts shall be provided, infra, to the extent they
prove relevant in addressing the issues presented.
questions of law, we "undertake an independent review of
the legal correctness of the [c]ircuit [c]ourt's ruling,
without according it any deference." Oku v.
State, 433 Md. 582, 593, 72 A.3d 538, 544 (2013).
Whether a plea agreement has been violated is a question of
law which this Court reviews de novo. Tweedy v.
State, 380 Md. 475, 482, 845 A.2d 1215, 1219 (2004).
argues that the State violated the terms of the District
Court plea agreement by offering a new plea in the de
novo proceeding, whereby Petitioner would plead guilty
in exchange for the State's recommendation of thirty
days' incarceration, instead of no incarceration as the
parties originally agreed.
Plea Agreements as Contracts
Reasonable Interpretation of Terms
Court has repeatedly acknowledged that plea bargains are akin
to contracts. See, e.g., Cuffley v. State,
416 Md. 568, 579, 7 A.3d 557, 563 (2010) ("Plea bargains
are likened to contracts.") (quoting Tweedy,
380 Md. at 482, 845 A.3d at 1219); see also
Solorzano v. State, 397 Md. 661, 668, 919 A.2d 652,
668 (2007) ("Because plea bargains are similar to
contracts …."). In considering whether a plea
agreement has been violated, appellate courts "construe
the terms of the plea agreement according to the reasonable
understanding of the defendant when he [or she] pled
guilty." Solorzano, 397 Md. at 668, 919 A.2d at
656 (citations omitted). In Cuffley, we concluded
[A]ny question that later arises concerning the meaning of
the sentencing term of a binding plea agreement must be
resolved by resort solely to the record established
at the [Maryland] Rule 4-243 plea proceeding. The record of
that proceeding must be examined to ascertain precisely what
was presented to the court, in the defendant's presence
and before the court accepts the agreement, to determine what
the defendant reasonably understood to be the sentence the
parties negotiated and the court agreed to impose. The test
for determining what the defendant reasonably understood at
the time of the plea is an objective one. It depends not on
what the defendant actually understood the agreement to mean,
but rather, on what a reasonable lay person in the
defendant's position and unaware of the niceties of
sentencing law would have understood the agreement to mean,
based on the record developed at the plea proceeding.
Cuffley, 416 Md. at 582, 7 A.3d at 565 (emphasis in
examination of the terms of the plea agreement itself, by
reference to what was presented on the record at the plea
proceeding before the defendant pleads guilty, reveals what
the defendant reasonably understood to be the terms of the
agreement, then that determination governs the
agreement." Baines v. State, 416 Md. 604, 615,
7 A.3d 578, 585 (2010). Further, "[i]f the record of the
plea proceeding clearly discloses what the defendant
reasonably understood to be the terms of the agreement, then
the defendant is entitled to the benefit of the bargain,
which, at the defendant's option, is either specific
enforcement of the agreement or withdrawal of the plea."
Cuffley, 416 Md. at 583, 7 A.3d at 566 (internal
citations omitted). If the plea agreement is ambiguous then
the ambiguity should be construed in favor of the defendant.
Solorzano, 397 Md. at 673, 919 A.2d at 659.
argues that the plea agreement neither limited the
State's obligation to the District Court proceeding nor
indicated that the State's obligation would cease if
Petitioner noted an appeal. The State disagrees, and argues
that because the plea agreement did not include a provision
that the State would make the same no-jail recommendation on
a de novo appeal, no reasonable person in
Petitioner's position would interpret the agreement to
apply in the circuit court proceeding.
parties agree that the terms of the District Court plea
agreement were simple: Petitioner would plead guilty to the
crime of theft, and in exchange, the State would recommend
she receive no jail time. Under Cuffley, however,
our interpretation of the original plea agreement occurs
within the context of the District Court proceeding, and we
must examine the record from the April 30, 2015 hearing,
including "what was presented to the court, in the
defendant's presence and before the court accepts the
agreement, to determine what [Petitioner] reasonably
understood to be the" terms of the plea. See
Cuffley, 416 Md. at 582, 7 A.3d at 565. This review
is an objective analysis based on the plea proceeding's
record. See id. at 582, 7 A.2d at 565; see also
Baines, 416 Md. at 615, 7 A.3d at 585.
record reflects that at the commencement of the April 30,
2015 hearing, the State informed the District Court of the
parties' intent to enter into a plea agreement with the
previously referenced terms. After entering her guilty plea,
Petitioner's counsel explained to Petitioner that:
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: If you want to, you can enter a plea of
not guilty and have a trial. If you have a trial, you'd
[sic] presumed innocent and the State would have the burden
of trying to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They
would do that by calling witnesses and presenting evidence
and testimony. If we went to trial, you would have an
opportunity to present your case, to challenge the
State's case, and you could call any witnesses you
wished. If you wanted to, you could testify. You also have an
option not to testify. If you remain silent, your silence
would not be taken as a sign of guilt. Upon entering a guilty
plea you're waiving these trial rights; do you understand
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: Do you understand the State is making a
recommendation for not [sic] actual jail time in this matter,
just a suspended sentence. But that's only a
recommendation. The Judge can impose whatever penalty he
feels is appropriate under the circumstances up [to] the
maximum meaning 90 days in this case; do you understand that?
State then explained the underlying facts it would have
presented had Petitioner pled not guilty and proceeded to
trial. Once the State presented the facts, the District Court
judge held that "[i]t will be a finding of guilty."
At that point, the terms of the plea were satisfied and the
agreement was complete.
that, based on the above-referenced record, a reasonable
person in Petitioner's position would not have expected
the plea agreement to extend beyond the District Court
proceeding. During defense counsel's colloquy with
Petitioner, he explained what trial rights Petitioner was
foregoing by pleading guilty, but provided no notice to
Petitioner that her appellate rights remained intact or that
an appeal of her conviction would result in a de
novo proceeding. Absent any evidence in the record to
the contrary, we conclude the plea agreement was limited to
the District Court proceeding.
Oku v. State as Precedent for Extending District Court Plea
Agreement to De Novo Proceeding
Under Oku, De Novo Proceedings Are A
"Do Over For Findings of Fact and Judgment of
quotes Oku v. State for the proposition that
"[o]ur de novo trial system provides for what
is essentially a 'do over' in terms of the findings
of fact and judgment of guilt." Oku, 433 Md. at
595, 72 A.3d at 545. Petitioner argues that in Oku
we rejected the notion that the nature of a de novo
appeal either precluded the State from presenting the
defendant's District Court trial testimony in the circuit
court or eliminated what occurred in the District Court.
Based on this interpretation of Oku, Petitioner
argues that the original plea agreement did not expire when
the de novo appeal was filed. The State disagrees,
and argues that Petitioner ignores the fact that the judgment
of guilt in the District Court rested entirely on her guilty
plea. The State contends that once Petitioner sought the
de novo appeal of her conviction, the District Court
plea agreement was also subject to a "do over."
agree with the State's characterization of Oku
and its applicability to this case. In Oku, we
concluded that filing a de novo appeal from the
District Court to the circuit court does not extinguish the
District Court judgment. See Oku, 433 Md. at 592, 72
A.3d at 544. "Rather, 'the District Court's
judgment remains in effect pending the appeal to the circuit
court, unless and until superseded by a judgment of the
circuit court or a disposition by nolle prosequi or
stet.'" Id. (quoting Stone v.
State, 344 Md. 97, 104, 685 A.2d 441, 444
we have interpreted de novo to mean
"afresh" or "anew, " and that a de
novo trial affords a criminal defendant a "brand
new bite at the apple[.]" Id. 433 Md. at 591,
72 A.3d at 543 (citations omitted). A de novo appeal
to the circuit court is treated "as a wholly original
proceeding as if the charges had not been heard before and no
decision had been rendered." Garrison v. State,
350 Md. 128, 136, 711 A.2d 170, 173 (1998) (quoting State
v. Jefferson, 319 Md. 674, 681, 574 A.2d 918, 921
(1990)). On de novo appeal, the circuit court
"receive[s] evidence and make[s] determinations of facts
as though no prior proceeding had occurred."
Oku, 433 Md. at 592, 72 A.3d at 544 (quoting In
re Marcus, J., 405 Md. 221, 234-35, 950 A.2d 787 (2008).
The parties to the de novo proceeding are neither
limited by the evidence presented at the District Court trial
nor required to present the same evidence on appeal.
Id. (citing Garrison, 350 Md. at 136, 711
A.2d at 174). Our holding in Oku does not,
therefore, support the proposition that because the District
Court judgment remains in effect, the factual and procedural
underpinnings that led to the judgment - the plea agreement -
also remain in effect on de novo appeal.
Effect of Petitioner's District Court Guilty
we hold that the District Court plea agreement does not
extend to the de novo proceeding, it is pertinent to
clarify the impact Petitioner's guilty plea in the
District Court may have in the de novo proceeding.
facts in this case are similar to those in Oku. In
Oku, we considered whether the de novo
system contemplated by Cts. & Jud. Proc. §12-401(f)
barred the State from using a criminal defendant's
admission - made during the District Court trial - in the
State's case during the subsequent de novo
trial. Oku, 433 Md. at 593, 72 A.2d at 544. We
emphasized in Oku "that a de novo
appeal has the effect of ignoring the judgment
below, but only for the limited purpose of granting a
defendant, who was convicted upon trial in the District
Court, a second trial." Id. at 594, 72 A.3d at
545 (emphasis in original). We concluded that "[a]t the
second trial, no deference is accorded to the District
Court's factual findings or legal conclusions."
Id. at 594, 72 A.3d at 545. We also noted that the
United States Supreme Court, in describing another
state's two-tier trial system,  explained that in a trial
de novo the "[p]rosecution and defense begin
anew" and "neither the judge nor jury determines
guilt or fixes a penalty in the trial de novo is in
any way bound by the [District Court's] findings or
judgment." Id. at 595, 72 A.3d at 545
(quoting Colten v. Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104, 113, 92
S.Ct. 1953, 1958 (1972)). We concluded that a de
novo trial "does not call for the exclusion of
testimony voluntarily given in the District Court trial, as
long as that testimony is admissible under our rules of
evidence." Oku, 433 Md. at 595, 72 A.3d at 545.
noted that, in contrast to appeals from the District Court
that are reviewed "on the record, " there is a new
fact finder in the de novo proceeding who owes no
deference to the District Court's findings or
conclusions. Id. at 595-96, 72 A.3d at 546.
"Both parties are free to present new evidence or a new
theory of the case[, ]" and the circuit court "must
decide the admissibility of the proffered evidence by resort
to the applicable evidentiary rules." Id. We
the factfinder at a trial de novo makes a fresh
determination of the weight to be accorded to any evidence
that is admitted. In short, applying the rules of evidence to
[c]ircuit [c]ourt trials that are the result of a de
novo appeal in the same manner as they are applied in a
trial that originates in that court does not deprive a
defendant of the second "bite at the apple"
mandated by ...