Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals, Court of Appeals
Case No. 14CA1719
for Petitioner: Daniel H. May, District Attorney, Fourth
Judicial District, Doyle J. Baker, Senior Deputy District
Attorney, Jennifer L. Darby, Deputy District Attorney,
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Attorneys for Respondent: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender,
Britta Kruse, Lead Deputy Public Defender, Denver, Colorado
"[C]riminal justice today is for the most part a system
of pleas, not a system of trials." Lafler v.
Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 170, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 182 L.Ed.2d
398 (2012). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the U.S.
Supreme Courts recent estimation that "[n]inety-seven
percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of
state convictions are the result of guilty pleas."
Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134, 143, 132 S.Ct. 1399,
182 L.Ed.2d 379 (2012). Against this backdrop,
we must determine whether the People are entitled to withdraw
from a plea agreement where, following the defendants guilty
plea, the trial court determines that a more lenient sentence
than the one the parties set forth in the agreement is
appropriate. Because the statute and the rules governing plea
agreements in Colorado, section 16-7-302(2)-(3), C.R.S.
(2018), Crim. P. 11(f)(5), and Crim. P. 32(d) ("the
statute and rules"), allow the defendant, but not the
People, to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial
court rejects a sentence concession after accepting the
guilty plea, we answer the question in the
The statute and rules require the trial court to exercise its
independent judgment in deciding whether to adopt or reject
sentence concessions. Consistent with this authority, we
reiterate what we made clear more than four decades ago:
Regardless of what label the parties may attach to sentence
concessions in a plea agreement— be it "sentence
stipulations," "sentence agreements," or
something else— they are nothing more than sentence
recommendations that the trial court, in the exercise of its
independent judgment, may adopt or reject. And if the court
rejects a sentence concession after a defendant pleads
guilty, the statute and rules allow the defendant— and
only the defendant— to withdraw from the plea
We recognize that we have sometimes applied general
principles of contract law in analyzing plea agreements in
the past. But here, we do not address a situation in which a
party has allegedly breached a plea agreement. Instead, the
question we confront is whether the People may withdraw from
a plea agreement when the trial court, in the exercise of its
discretion, rejects a sentence concession in the agreement
after accepting the defendants guilty plea. Based on the
statute and rules, we hold that the People may not do so.
We are not persuaded by the Peoples argument that a trial
court violates the separation-of-powers doctrine when it
accepts a guilty plea to an uncharged offense pursuant to a
plea agreement but then rejects the parties stipulated
sentence without allowing the People to withdraw from the
agreement. The People, not trial courts, provide the
opportunity for a defendant to plead guilty to an uncharged
offense as part of a plea agreement. And when defendants take
advantage of such an opportunity, the trial courts, not the
People, determine the appropriate sentence. The
separation-of-powers doctrine requires nothing more.
The Achilles heel of the Peoples separation-of-powers
contention is that it assumes that a trial courts acceptance
of a guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement is contingent
on the trial courts subsequent adoption of the sentence
concessions in the agreement. The statute and rules belie
such an assumption. Under the statute and rules, when the
People create an opportunity for a defendant to plead guilty
to an uncharged offense as part of a plea agreement, any
sentence concessions in the agreement are mere
recommendations that the trial court may accept or reject,
and if the trial court rejects a sentence concession after
the defendant pleads guilty, only the defendant may withdraw
from the plea agreement. Because the statute and rules
allowed only Mazzarelli to withdraw from the plea agreement
after he pled guilty and the court rejected the sentence
concession in the agreement, and because the People do not
question the constitutionality of the statute and rules, we
reject the separation-of-powers claim.
The court of appeals in this case upheld the trial courts
refusal to allow the People to withdraw from the plea
agreement after Mazzarelli pled guilty. We affirm its
judgment. But we do so for markedly different reasons—
our holding takes root in the statute and rules. Given this
determination, we decline to address the merits of the
conclusions reached by the court of appeals with respect to
the two remaining issues on which
we granted certiorari review. Instead, we vacate its
opinion in its entirety.
I. Facts and Procedural History
The People charged Christopher Anthon Mazzarelli with knowing
or reckless child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury to
his infant son, a class 3 felony. See §
18-6-401(1)(a), (7)(a)(III), C.R.S. (2018). The underlying
factual allegations involved shaken-baby syndrome.
Mazzarelli and the People executed a plea agreement, which
indicated that he wished to plead guilty to an added charge
of criminally negligent child abuse resulting in serious
bodily injury, a class 4 felony. See §
18-6-401(1)(a), (7)(a)(IV). In exchange for Mazzarellis
guilty plea, the prosecution agreed to dismiss the original
charge. The parties further agreed as follows with respect to
The sentence will be a Department of Corrections Sentence
within the Extraordinary Risk Crime Range of 2 to 8 years.
Both sides are free to argue as to [the] actual amount of
incarceration the Court should impose.
plea agreement also included a clause that permitted
Mazzarelli to withdraw from the agreement:
I understand that any sentence imposed by the judge must
conform to [the] agreement. If, after I plead guilty, the
judge decides not to accept the sentence recommendation or
limitation, I will have the right to withdraw my guilty plea
and have a trial.
During a hearing, Mazzarellis counsel informed the court
that the parties had reached a plea agreement. She explained
the terms of the agreement, including the "stipulation
for prison ... between two and eight years." Following
an advisement of his rights pursuant to Crim. P. 11(b),
Mazzarelli pled guilty to the added charge and the court
accepted his plea and granted the Peoples motion to dismiss
the original charge. The court then postponed sentencing
pending completion of a presentence report by the probation
At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor acknowledged that
Mazzarellis son did not have any permanent injuries, but
nevertheless urged the court to impose a sentence consistent
with the plea agreement. The court expressed reluctance to
punish Mazzarelli with imprisonment for "what might have
happened." It also articulated concerns about sending
Mazzarelli to prison based on its knowledge of the
"great strides and progress" he had made in a
related dependency and neglect proceeding and the substantial
impact that such a sentence would have on his
fifteen-month-old son. At the end of its comments, the court
announced that it was "not going to accept the plea
agreement" because it was "not willing to send
[Mazzarelli] to prison." The court noted, however, that
it would accept a plea agreement with "an open
sentence" with potential placement in community
corrections. Given this decision, the court asked the
prosecutor if she wished to withdraw from the plea agreement.
The prosecutor asked for a week to consider how to proceed,
and the court granted her request and scheduled a new hearing
on the next available date.
The day before the new hearing took place, Mazzarelli filed a
motion requesting the appointment of a special prosecutor,
arguing that the prosecutor had made "blatantly
false" statements during the previous hearing about the
child-abuse incident. At the hearing held the following day,
the prosecutor admitted she had misspoken and attempted to
clarify the alleged misstatements.
She apologized, opposed Mazzarellis motion for a special
prosecutor, and asked to withdraw from the plea agreement.
The trial court found that the prosecutors misstatements
amounted to prosecutorial misconduct and denied her request
to withdraw from the plea agreement as a sanction.
Accordingly, the court moved forward with the sentencing
hearing and sentenced Mazzarelli to supervised probation for
a period of three years, instead of the agreed-upon prison
The People appealed. A division of the court of appeals ruled
that, "regardless of the trial courts sanction, the
People were not entitled to withdraw from the plea
agreement" and the trial court "had discretion to
sentence Mazzarelli outside the terms of the stipulated
sentencing range." People v. Mazzarelli, 2016
COA 35, ¶¶ 9, 33, __ P.3d __. The division gave four reasons
for its ruling. First, it found that the trial court had
accepted Mazzarellis guilty plea, but had never agreed to be
bound by the sentence recommendation in the plea agreement.
Id. at ¶ 25. Second, the division noted that when
the trial court accepted Mazzarellis guilty plea, it had not
yet received, much less reviewed, the presentence report.
Id. at ¶ 26. The division reasoned that a trial
court can only be bound by sentencing concessions in a plea
agreement if they are supported by the presentence report.
Id. Third, it pointed out that the People had not
alleged that Mazzarelli "materially and substantially
breached the plea agreement." Id. at ¶ 33
(quoting Keller v. People, 29 P.3d 290, 297 (Colo.
2000)). According to the division, the People may not
withdraw from a plea agreement after "acceptance of the
entirety of the ... agreement," unless there is a
sentence reduction that amounts to " a material and
substantial breach of the plea agreement. "
Id. at ¶ 31 (quoting Keller, 29 P.3d at
297). Finally, the division explained that the prosecutors
misconduct led to the denial of her request to withdraw from
the plea agreement. Id. at ¶ 28. Thus, the division
affirmed the trial courts order.
Like the division, we conclude that the trial court correctly
refused to allow the People to withdraw from the plea
agreement. But we do so for different reasons— our
decision rests on the statute and rules.
We first examine the statute and rules in detail. We then
discuss our caselaw in this area. And we end by rejecting the
Peoples separation-of-powers claim.
A. The Statute and Rules Do Not Support the ...