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Breach of a plea agreement

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  • Legalbear
    St. James v. People, 948 P.2d 1028 (Colo. 12/08/1997) [1] Colorado Supreme Court [2] No. 96SC580 [3] 948 P.2d 1028, 1997.CO.42037
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 3, 2005
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      St. James v. People, 948 P.2d 1028 (Colo. 12/08/1997)

       

      [1] Colorado Supreme Court

       

      [2] No. 96SC580

       

      [3] 948 P.2d 1028, 1997.CO.42037 <http://www.versuslaw.com>

       

      [4] December 8, 1997

       

      [5] STEVEN ST. JAMES, PETITIONER, v. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF

      COLORADO, RESPONDENT.

       

      [6] Chambers, Dansky and Hansen, P.C. David J. Dansky Denver, Colorado

      Attorneys for Petitioner Gale A. Norton, Attorney General Martha Phillips Allbright,

      Chief Deputy Attorney General Richard A. Westfall, Solicitor General John Daniel

      Dailey, Deputy Attorney General Robert Mark Russel, First Assistant Attorney

      General Clemmie P. Engle, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Enforcement

      Section Denver , Colorado Attorneys for Respondent

       

      [7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Martinez

       

      [8] Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals

       

      [9] EN BANC

       

      [10] JUDGMENT REVERSED AND CASE REMANDED WITH DIRECTIONS

       

      [11] CHIEF JUSTICE VOLLACK concurs in part and Dissents in part, and

      JUSTICE MULLARKEY joins in the concurrence and Dissent.

       

      [12] This appeal involves an alleged breach of a plea agreement between the

      defendant, Steve n M. St. James, and the prosecution. St. James filed a Crim. P. 35(c)

      motion alleging that the prosecution's statements at a sentencing hearing breached its

      promise to refrain from advocating a particular sentence. After considering "the

      totality of the circumstances under which the sentence was imposed," the trial court

      determined that "the sentence is appropriate and should not be modified." In People v.

      St. James, 931 P.2d 501 (Colo. App. 1996), the court of appeals applied a de novo

      standard of review and affirmed the trial court's order denying St. James's Crim. P.

      35(c) motion.*fn1

       

      [13] The court of appeals correctly applied a de novo standard of review in

      determining the meaning of the plea agreement. We hold, however, that the appropriate

      standard of appellate review for an alleged breach of a plea agreement is whether the

      trial court's determination was clearly erroneous. We therefore reverse and direct the

      court of appeals to remand the case to the trial court with directions that it apply the

      meaning of the agreement which we determined in our de novo review and decide

      whether the prosecution's comments at the sentencing hearing were a material and

      substantial breach of the plea agreement.

       

      [14] I.

       

      [15] On May 10, 1988, St. James pleaded guilty to a criminal information charging him

      with one count of felony theft by receiving*fn2 and one count of felony attempted

      possession of a vehicle without a vehicle identification number.*fn3 In return for his

      plea, the prosecution agreed to dismiss the remaining criminal charges as well as

      additional criminal actions pending in Boulder , Arapahoe, and Summit Counties.*fn4

      The plea agreement also required the prosecution to refrain from "advocat[ing] a

      sentence to the Department of Corrections . . . a sentence of probation . . . [or] a

      sentence to Community Corrections." However, the prosecution expressly reserved

      the right to "place all of the appropriate facts before the Court for consideration."*fn5

       

      [16] After entering his plea, St. James absconded and failed to appear for sentencing

      until he was apprehended three years later. However, the parties continued to abide by

      the terms of the plea agreement. In October 1991, the trial court conducted a

      sentencing hearing during which St. James and his attorney addressed the court, and

      the prosecution responded with the following remarks:

       

      [17] Your Honor, the defendant's criminal history runs from basically the time he was

      18 years old until the present date. Now, it's a continuous criminal history, time after

      time after time after time, he commits crimes. . . . I paint a different picture of Mr. St .

      James [than the one presented by defense counsel]. I paint a picture of Mr. St. James

      that he is a consummate con artist, and he knows precisely what he's done. And, yet,

      he only walks away with so few convictions. . . . And does he pay for [the cars

      involved in the charges]? No, he doesn't pay for them. And, yet, a few years later, in

      between the time he pled guilty in this case and the time he is here today [three years],

      he does the same thing again. He cons women or he convinces these women that they

      should be involved in these insurance scams . . . .

       

      [18] The trial court sentenced St. James to fourteen years for theft by receiving, with a

      consecutive six-year sentence for attempted possession of a vehicle without a vehicle

      identification number.*fn6

       

      [19] In May 1995, St. James filed a Crim. P. 35(c) motion alleging that the

      prosecution's remarks during the 1991 sentencing hearing breached the terms of the

      plea agreement and that his sentence should therefore be vacated and the action

      remanded for resentencing. St. James asserted that the prosecution's recitation of St.

      James's criminal history, coupled with statements that St. James was a "consummate

      con artist" who had repeatedly engaged in the type of criminal activity for which he

      was being sentenced, frustrated St. James's reasonable expectation that the

      prosecution would refrain from advocating a sentence. On May 25, 1995, the trial

      court, "[a]fter considering the totality of the circumstances under which the sentence

      was imposed," determined that "the sentence is appropriate and should not be

      modified." Thus, the trial court denied the Crim. P. 35(c) motion.

       

      [20] Applying a de novo standard of review, the court of appeals affirmed the trial

      court and held that the prosecution "did not agree to take 'no position' on sentencing.

      Rather, [the prosecution] agreed only that [it] would not advocate a particular

      sentence, a more narrow promise." St. James, 931 P.2d at 503. The court reasoned

      that "the rhetoric defendant challenges falls short of the more inflammatory rhetoric"

      involved in other federal cases. Id. The court of appeals concluded that the

      prosecution's comments did not "violate any reasonable expectation arising under [St.

      James's] plea agreement." Id. at 504.

       

      [21] II.

       

      [22] Interpreting the meaning of a plea agreement is strictly a question of law. The

      court of appeals properly applied a de novo standard of review in determining that the

      plea agreement called for the prosecution not to advocate a particular sentence.

      However, the court of appeals erroneously applied a de novo standard of review to

      decide whether the prosecutor's conduct violated the plea agreement.

       

      [23] A.

       

      [24] The court of appeals began its analysis of whether the prosecutor's sentencing

      argument violated the plea agreement by expressing its understanding that "[t]he

      standard of reviewing a trial court's determination of a claim that a plea agreement has

      been breached is unsettled." St. James, 931 P.2d at 503. The court noted that the

      defendant did not seek an evidentiary hearing and never alleged that any extrinsic

      evidence was relevant to an interpretation of the plea agreement, but based his appeal

      solely on the transcript of the sentencing hearing. The court utilized the de novo

      standard of review because there were no contested facts before the trial court

      concerning either the interpretation of the plea agreement or the content of the

      prosecutor's sentencing argument. Id. Thus, the court of appeals "assume[d] without

      deciding" that the circumstances presented an issue of law for de novo review

      because St. James "did not seek an evidentiary hearing on his Crim. P. 35(c) motion

      and, on appeal, likewise does not allege that any extrinsic evidence is relevant to an

      interpretation of the stipulation." Id.

       

      [25] It is true that courts are divided concerning the standard of appellate review to be

      applied to a trial court's determination of whether a plea agreement has been violated.

      See United States v. Pollard, 959 F.2d 1011, 1022-23 (D.C. Cir. 1992). Several courts

      employ a de novo standard. See United States v. Cooper, 70 F.3d 563, 565 (10th Cir.

      1995); Allen v. Hadden, 57 F.3d 1529, 1534 (10th Cir. 1995); United States v.

      O'Rourke, 43 F.3d 82, 94 (3d Cir. 1994); Lucero v. Kerby, 7 F.3d 1520, 1522 (10th

      Cir. 1993); United States v. Moscahlaidis, 868 F.2d 1357, 1360 (3d Cir. 1989). Other

      courts employ a clearly erroneous standard. See United States v. Conner, 930 F.2d

      1073, 1076-77 (4th Cir. 1991); Raulerson v. United States, 901 F.2d 1009, 1012 (11th

      Cir. 1990); United States v. Ataya, 864 F.2d 1324, 1327 (7th Cir. 1988); United States

      v. Parrilla-Marquez, 825 F.2d 572, 578 (1st Cir. 1987); United States v. Wood, 780

      F.2d 929, 932 (11th Cir. 1986); State v. Wills, 533 N.W.2d 165, 166 (Wis. 1995).

       

      [26] It is not true that the standard of review to be applied to a trial court's

      determination of whether a plea agreement has been violated is unsettled in Colorado.

      In People v. McCormick, 859 P.2d 846 (Colo. 1993), we considered the appropriate

      standard for reviewing violations of plea agreements. We granted certiorari specifically

      "to address the appropriate standard to be applied in determining whether a defendant

      has breached a plea agreement." Id. at 856.*fn7 We held that "[i]f a trial court's

      finding of a material and substantial breach is supported by evidence in the record, it

      will not be overturned on appeal unless the reviewing court is convinced that the

      finding is clearly erroneous." Id. at 858.

       

      [27] McCormick did not discuss the standard of review involved in determining the

      meaning of the plea agreement. Instead, McCormick reviewed the trial court's factual

      determination that the defendant's conduct discharged the prosecution from

      performing its obligations under the plea agreement. We discern no reason to depart

      from the clearly erroneous standard applied in McCormick merely because we are

      reviewing the prosecution's actions here. Regardless of which party allegedly violates

      a plea agreement, a trial court Judge is in the best position to evaluate whether the

      conduct of a party exceeded the bounds of an agreement.

       

      [28] Appellate review of plea agreements often involves a blend of law and facts.

      Cases involving conduct that may have violated plea agreements can turn on an

      evaluation of demeanor conveyed through voice inflections or even facial expressions.

      See Pollard, 959 F.2d at 1023. Trial Judges have an advantage in making factual

      determinations because they hear the evidence and observe the demeanor of

      witnesses. Accordingly, we have previously recognized that the trial court initially

      resolves disputed factual questions, which are subsequently reviewed under the clearly

      erroneous standard. See People v. Thomas, 853 P.2d 1147, 1149 (Colo. 1993)

      (stating that "[d]eference is given to the trial court's findings of fact and, as long as

      there is support for them, [appellate courts] will not overturn such findings").

       

      [29] Because the determination of the meaning of a plea agreement is a question of

      law, de novo review is the proper standard for interpreting a party's obligation under a

      plea agreement. See Pollard, 959 F.2d at 1023. However, the more subtle question of

      whether a party has materially and substantially breached a plea agreement is left to the

      discretion of the trial court. See McCormick, 859 P.2d at 858. We therefore hold that

      the proper standard for reviewing a determination of whether a party has breached a

      plea agreement is whether the decision of the trial court was clearly erroneous.*fn8

       

      [30] B.

       

      [31] We next look to the findings of the trial court and conclude that it failed to

      determine both the meaning of the plea agreement and whether the conduct of the

      prosecutor breached its obligations. The proper standard for determining whether a

      party has breached its obligations under a plea agreement is whether its actions

      constituted a material and substantial breach. The trial court failed to apply this

      standard and merely reaffirmed the defendant's sentence. It is not possible to discern

      from the trial court order whether the trial court thought that there was no breach, or

      instead believed that no remedy was necessary for the breach because it had already

      reduced the sentence.

       

      [32] When a defendant reasonably and detrimentally relies on the prosecution's

      promises in a plea agreement, due process requires the enforcement of the plea

      agreement. See id. at 856; see also Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 262 (1971)

      ("[W]hen a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the

      prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, the

      promise must be fulfilled."); People v. Macrander, 756 P.2d 356, 359 (Colo. 1988)

      (same); see also ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Prosecution & Defense

      Function Section 3-4.2 at 88 (3d ed. 1993) ("A prosecutor should not fail to comply

      with a plea agreement, unless a defendant fails to comply . . . or other extenuating

      circumstances are present."). However, not every breach by a party releases the other

      party from its promises under the agreement.*fn9 A party is released from its plea

      agreement obligations in situations where the other party materially and substantially

      breaches an obligation under the plea agreement. See McCormick, 859 P.2d at 857;

      see also United States v. Barresse, 115 F.3d 610, 612 (8th Cir. 1997) (noting that

      "[w]hen the government fails to fulfill a material term of a plea agreement, the

      defendant may seek . . . to withdraw his plea"); Rodriguez v. New Mexico, 12 F.3d

      175, 175 (10th Cir. 1993) (recognizing that "only breaches of material promises will

      allow a court to conclude that a plea was involuntarily induced and thus

      constitutionally infirm"); United States v. John son, 582 F.2d 335, 337 (5th Cir. 1978)

      (noting that the government breaches its plea agreement only when its conduct violates

      the essence of the plea bargain); State v. Bangert, 389 N.W.2d 12, 32 (Wis. 1986)

      (recognizing that a party seeking to vacate a plea agreement has the burden of

      establishing "'both the breach, and that the breach is sufficiently material to warrant

      releasing the party from its promises (prosecution or defense) before the same Judge

      who accepted the plea, whenever possible'") (quoting State v. Rivest, 316 N.W.2d

      395, 399 (Wis. 1982)); State v. Clement, 450 N.W.2d 789, 794 (Wis. App. 1989)

      (noting that defendant has the burden to prove that a material and substantial breach of

      the plea agreement occurred).

       

      [33] In its written order, the trial court simply concluded that the "sentence is

      appropriate and should not be modified." The trial court did not determine whether the

      prosecution's actions constituted a material and substantial breach of the plea

      agreement. Nor did the trial court indicate whether, if there was a breach, it believed

      the defendant was not entitled to a remedy since the trial court had already reduced the

      sentence of the defendant. Because no determination was made by the trial court, the

      appellate function is hindered. The clearly erroneous standard of review cannot be

      applied in the absence of a resolution by the trial court of whether the prosecution's

      statements at the sentencing hearing materially and substantially breached its

      obligations under the plea agreement.*fn10

       

      [34] The court of appeals correctly applied a de novo standard of review to determine

      the meaning of the plea agreement between St. James and the prosecutor. In applying

      this standard, the court of appeals examined the prosecution's promise to refrain from

      advocating a sentence to either the Department of Corrections, probation, or

      Community Corrections. The court determined that "the prosecution did not agree to

      take 'no position' on sentencing. Rather, it agreed only that it would not advocate for a

      particular sentence, a more narrow promise." St. James, 931 P.2d at 503. The court of

      appeals also noted that because the plea agreement did not prevent the prosecution

      from "placing all of the appropriate facts before the trial court," the prosecution had

      "some latitude in attempting to influence the sentence without actually commenting on

      the sentence itself." Id.

       

      [35] In conducting our de novo review, we determine that the meaning of the plea

      agreement is that the prosecution may not advocate for a particular sentence although

      it may place appropriate facts before the court. We hold that the court of appeals

      improperly assumed that a trial court's determination of whether a plea agreement has

      been breached is reviewed de novo. The appropriate standard of appellate review for

      an alleged breach of a plea agreement is whether the trial court's determination was

      clearly erroneous. It is necessary for the trial court to determine whether the

      prosecution breached the plea agreement, applying the meaning of the agreement

      which we have determined in our de novo review. We therefore reverse the judgment

      of the court of appeals.

       

      [36] C.

       

      [37] For purposes of direction, we briefly address the remedies a trial court may grant

      if it determines that the prosecution materially and substantially breached its plea

      agreement obligation

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