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Smith v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 22, 2017


          Argued: May 4, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CT151085X

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


          Greene, J.

         In this case, the petitioner, Stephanie L. Smith ("Ms. Smith"), entered into a plea agreement with the State. The terms of the agreement included that Ms. Smith would enter a plea of guilty to the crime of theft and that she would serve jail time. At the guilty plea proceeding, the sentencing Circuit Court accepted the terms of the agreement, binding itself to the agreement. However, the judge imposed a sentence below the terms of the plea agreement by sentencing Ms. Smith to probation before judgment, not finding her guilty of theft, and ordering home detention, rather than actual jail time. Moreover, this was done without the consent of the State. We shall hold that the more lenient sentence in this case was not consistent with the terms of the binding plea agreement and was without the consent of the State; thus, it was an illegal sentence. Bonilla v. State, 443 Md. 1, 15, 115 A.3d 98, 106 (2015) (holding "that when a sentencing court violates Rule 4-243(c)(3) by imposing a sentence below a binding plea agreement without the State's consent, the sentence is inherently illegal and subject to correction under Rule 4-345(a)"). Accordingly, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals. State v. Smith, 230 Md.App. 214, 146 A.3d 1189 (2016).



         On September 10, 2015, Ms. Smith was indicted by a Grand Jury for Prince George's County, on various theft charges for making fraudulent insurance claims, including a charge of theft of property with a value of at least $10, 000 but less than $100, 000. Under Md. Code (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol.), Criminal Law Article ("CR"), § 7-104(g)(ii), the maximum penalty for this violation is imprisonment not exceeding 15 years, a fine not exceeding $15, 000, or both.

         Plea Bargain

         A month after the indictment, Ms. Smith, her counsel, and the State began plea negotiations. Eventually the parties reached a plea agreement. Ms. Smith agreed to plead guilty to the primary theft charge. In exchange, Ms. Smith was guaranteed a sentence not to exceed 5 years of incarceration. Further, with respect to actual jail time, the 5 year sentence would be suspended except for 30 to 90 days of incarceration, followed by 5 years of supervised probation. Moreover, she would not have to pay a fine. As part of the agreement, the State would not seek the maximum sentence of incarceration up to 15 years and a fine up to $15, 000. However, ultimately, there would be a conviction on Ms. Smith's record and a requirement that she pay $47, 460.02 restitution to the victims of the theft.

         Pursuant to Md. Rule 4-243, plea agreements may be binding on the court. The binding agreement required the approval of the judge.[1]

         Guilty Plea Hearing

         On January 5, 2016, before a judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, the State called the case for a hearing on Ms. Smith's acceptance of the guilty plea. The State presented the judge with the terms of the agreement that had been reached between the parties:

[PROSECUTOR]: It would be a plea to Count 1, which is theft scheme greater than $10, 000 but less than $100, 000. In exchange for the guilty plea, there is a ceiling and a floor. The State would be allowed to argue for 5 years, suspend all but 90 days, 5 years supervised probation, and restitution in the amount of $47, 460.02.
THE COURT: $47, 000.
[PROSECUTOR]: $460.02. And the defense [is] free to argue for as little as 5 years, suspend all but 30 days, followed by 5 years supervised probation and also the restitution in the $47, 460.02.
[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: [Prosecutor], didn't we talk about I can ask for weekends?
[PROSECUTOR]: That is correct. The defense is free to argue that she serve weekends. But, no, we didn't talk about home detention, just weekends.

         The State agreed to enter a nolle prosequi to the remaining counts in exchange for Ms. Smith's guilty plea to the top count. The judge informed the defense that the court could impose up to 15 years of incarceration notwithstanding the agreement. The State then clarified that the parties were anticipating that the court would bind itself to the terms they had agreed to:

THE COURT: All right. Now, before I can accept your plea, I have to be satisfied that the State actually has a factual basis for this, that they are not whistling in the wind, that there are basic elements that they would have proven if the matter had gone to trial. Have a seat. Get yourself together. Listen to what [the prosecutor] says the State would have proven had this matter gone to trial.
[PROSECUTOR]: Your Honor, thank you. Just briefly, before that I have a housekeeping matter. I would like to add that despite the range, the 90 and 30 days, it is contemplated this would be a binding plea, therefore, it can only be modified in the future if both parties agree.
THE COURT: Are you saying that if the Defendant is sentenced within the parameters of-first of all, are you asking the Court to bind itself to the 5-year cap?
[PROSECUTOR]: To the range.
THE COURT: 90-day cap.
[PROSECUTOR]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Or 30-day cap.
THE COURT: I have to hear the facts before I'm willing to do that. Okay, number one. And number two, are you saying that the Defendant is prohibited from asking for reconsideration?
[PROSECUTOR]: No. They are not prohibited from asking. But before the motion can be granted, both sides would have to agree.

         At this point the judge conditionally agreed to be bound by the terms of the agreement subject to some unforeseen issue in the subsequent statement of supporting facts. The judge explained to Ms. Smith the limits on the sentence that the plea bargain had imposed and that he was prepared to follow them. The terms that the judge announced and that Ms. Smith accepted were:

THE COURT: Okay, I see. Ms. Smith, the [State] is asking me to bind myself so I won't give you any more than 90 days jail time. So since that's coming from the State, that's certainly something that I will consider. The defense always wants the Court to bind itself to a fixed amount of time. Your attorney is asking for 30 days. Naturally, if I did accept this plea, I would take the higher amount, the 90 days. The other thing, in other words, 5 years suspend all but 90 days. You get 5 years but the most I could actually give you in terms of jail time at this time would be 90 days. But if you ...

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