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Monday, June 29, 2015

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today. So far?

In Larry D. Russell, Jr. v. State of Indiana, a 16-page, 4-1 opinion, Justice David writes [ILB emphasis]:

Larry D. Russell, Jr. pleaded guilty to five counts of class C felony neglect of a dependent and two counts of class C felony criminal confinement. The plea agreement left sentencing to the discretion of the trial court but capped Russell’s sentence at ten years “pursuant to Indiana Code 35-50-1-2(c).” (App. at 89.) This Section, however, did not actually apply to Russell. Nevertheless, the trial court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Russell to ten years in accordance with the perceived statutory cap. When Russell appealed his aggregate sentence, the Court of Appeals sua sponte determined that the misapplication of Indiana Code § 35-50-1-2(c) rendered the plea agreement void as a matter of law.

Russell petitioned this Court for transfer, and both Russell and the State argue that our precedent compels us to uphold the plea agreement. Upon review, it is clear that the ten-year cap in Russell’s plea agreement and the trial court’s imposition of a ten-year sentence were based on an erroneous application of Indiana Code § 35-50-1-2(c). Despite this mistake of law, we hold that Russell’s plea agreement is enforceable, because where a defendant like Russell pleads guilty knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily, and where a defendant like Russell gets the benefit of the bargain with the State when the State errs, “there is no compeling reason to set aside the conviction on grounds that the sentence is later determined to be invalid.” Lee v. State, 816 N.E.2d 35, 39 (Ind. 2004). * * *

Because Lee requires us to uphold a sentencing provision that misstates the law, provided the defendant pleaded guilty knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily—as Russell indisputably did, and provided that the defendant benefit from the bargain when the State errs—as Russell unequivocally does, we affirm Russell’s plea agreement, notwithstanding the mistaken application of the statutory cap contained within it.

Conclusion. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s acceptance of Russell’s plea agreement, and its imposition of a ten-year sentence, despite the mistaken application of Indiana Code § 35-50-1-2(c). Simply put, Russell’s plea agreement is valid and enforceable, as explained above. Additionally, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals’ determination that the trial court imposed an aggregate ten-year sentence. We remand this case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Dickson and Rucker, J.J., concur.
Rush, C.J., concurs in result only.
Massa, J., dissents with separate opinion. [which begins, at p. 11] It would be one thing to tell the prosecution it must live with its mistaken understanding of our sentencing laws that led to its inappropriately lenient plea bargain for these monstrous crimes, particularly when the State joins the appellant in asking us to enforce its terms. A deal’s a deal, after all. But our prior holding in Lee does not compel that result—one that severely diminishes judicial review of those terms—and so, for the reasons stated below, I dissent. * * *

All this is not to say the State couldn’t ultimately plead Russell to ten years, a grossly lenient yet perfectly legal sentence. But if such an agreement is reached and accepted by the trial court, it should be the product of an informed and honest bargaining process, and not a mistake of law. Because the outcome here was dependent upon such a mistaken understanding, apparently shared by all in the room, I respectfully dissent.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 29, 2015 10:53 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions