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Hartman v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 27, 2017

KEISHA ANN HARTMAN
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: October 7, 2016

         Circuit Court for Allegany County Case No. 01-K-15-16567

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty JJ.

          OPINION

          Hotten, J.

         We 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.[1] 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 Petitioner's motion.

         For the reasons that follow, we shall affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court for Allegany County.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On June 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.

         In the 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.

         On June 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.

         Petitioner 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.[2]

         Additional facts shall be provided, infra, to the extent they prove relevant in addressing the issues presented.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         For 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).

         DISCUSSION

         Petitioner 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.

         I. Plea Agreements as Contracts

         a. Reasonable Interpretation of Terms

         This 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 that:

[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 original).

         "[I]f 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.

         Petitioner 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.

         The 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.

         The 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 that?
[PETITIONER]: Yeah.
[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?
[PETITIONER]: Yes.

         The 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.

         We hold 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.

         b. Oku v. State as Precedent for Extending District Court Plea Agreement to De Novo Proceeding

         i. Under Oku, De Novo Proceedings Are A "Do Over For Findings of Fact and Judgment of Guilt"

         Petitioner 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."

         We 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 (1996)).[3]

         Additionally, 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.

         ii. Effect of Petitioner's District Court Guilty Plea

         Because 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.

         The 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, [4] 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.

         We also noted that, in contrast to appeals from the District Court that are reviewed "on the record, "[5] 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 held:

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 ...

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