A recent case before the New Mexico Court of Appeals clarified whether a court could sentence an individual to more time than agreed to in a plea agreement if a portion of that sentence was suspended. In State v. Miller, the Court held that the suspended portion of the sentence counted as part of the sentence and therefore courts could not sentence a defendant for more time than agreed to under the plea agreement, regardless of whether a portion of the sentence is suspended or not.
A plea agreement is an agreement between a defendant and the prosecutor where a defendant pleads guilty to a charge in exchange for certain concessions like a reduced sentence, dismissal of other charges or other recommendations to the court favorable to the defendant. The agreement is then presented to the court, which must accept or deny it. Once the court accepts the agreement, it is binding on all parties, including the court itself.
In State v. Miller, the defendant entered into a plea agreement whereby he would receive a sentence of no less than ten and no more than forty years in prison. After the agreement was accepted by the district court judge, the court sentenced him to forty-two years imprisonment with a suspension of nine years, for a total initial sentence of thirty-three years. The defendant appealed, arguing that the forty-two year sentence violated the plea agreement.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals agreed.
At the appeal, the State argued that a forty-two year sentence was consistent with the plea agreement because the plea agreement stipulated that the Defendant would not be given more than 40 years "at initial sentencing." The state argued that the forty-year limitation in the agreement referred to the initial period of incarceration, and not the sentence itself. Since Defendant's initial period of incarceration was thirty-three years, the State argued, the agreement was not violated when the Defendant was sentenced to forty-two years with a nine-year suspension. The New Mexico Court of Appeals disagreed.
The Court Appeals held that under New Mexico case law, courts construe plea agreements according to the Defendant's reasonable understanding of the plea. It is also settled in New Mexico that any part of a sentence that is initially suspended is counted as part of the sentence.
The Court of Appeals made clear that the fact that a sentence is suspended does not change the length of a sentence. For example, a court may not sentence a defendant to 500 years with a suspension of 498 years without violating a plea agreement for a maximum sentence of two years. Once a court accepts a plea agreement, it may not sentence a defendant to more time than agreed to, regardless of whether a portion of the sentence is suspended.
In this case, the Court found that it was reasonable for the Defendant to understand that his total sentence, and not just the initial period of incarceration, would be no longer than forty years. The Court also noted that if the State wanted to make sure that the Defendant served a certain period of time, it could have easily made it clear in the plea agreement. Then of course, the district court could have refused the plea agreement completely since this is generally within the discretion of the judge.
- The Law of Contracts and Criminal Plea Agreements in New Mexico
- Supreme Court Extends Sixth Amendment Protection to Rejected Plea Offers