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People v. Mazzarelli

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

July 1, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
v.
Christopher Anthon Mazzarelli. Respondent

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 14CA1719

          Attorneys 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

          OPINION

          SAMOUR, JUSTICE

         ¶1 "[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 (2012). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the U.S. Supreme Court's 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 (2012). Against this backdrop, we must determine whether the People are entitled to withdraw from a plea agreement where, following the defendant's 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 negative.[1]

         ¶2 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 agreement.

         ¶3 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.[2] 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 defendant's guilty plea. Based on the statute and rules, we hold that the People may not do so.

         ¶4 We are not persuaded by the People's 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.

         ¶5 The Achilles' heel of the People's separation-of-powers contention is that it assumes that a trial court's acceptance of a guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement is contingent on the trial court's 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.

         ¶6 The court of appeals in this case upheld the trial court's 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.[3] Instead, we vacate its opinion in its entirety.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶7 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.

         ¶8 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 Mazzarelli's guilty plea, the prosecution agreed to dismiss the original charge. The parties further agreed as follows with respect to the sentence:

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.

         The 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.

         ¶9 During a hearing, Mazzarelli's 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 People's motion to dismiss the original charge. The court then postponed sentencing pending completion of a presentence report by the probation department.

         ¶10 At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor acknowledged that Mazzarelli's 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.

         ¶11 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 Mazzarelli's motion for a special prosecutor, and asked to withdraw from the plea agreement. The trial court found that the prosecutor's 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 sentence.

         ¶12 The People appealed. A division of the court of appeals ruled that, "regardless of the trial court's 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 Mazzarelli's 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 Mazzarelli's 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 prosecutor's misconduct led to the denial of her request to withdraw from the plea agreement. Id. at ¶ 28. Thus, the division affirmed the trial court's order.

         II. Analysis

         ¶13 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.

         ¶14 We first examine the statute and rules in detail. We then discuss our caselaw in this area. And we end by rejecting the People's separation-of-powers claim.

         A. The Statute and Rules Do Not Support the People's Position

         ¶15 Section 16-7-302(3) provides that, "[n]otwithstanding the reaching of a plea agreement between the district attorney and defense counsel or defendant, the judge in every case should exercise an independent judgment in deciding whether to grant . . . sentence concessions." Crim. P. 11(f)(5) contains an identical mandate. Therefore, under section 16-7-302(3) and Rule 11(f)(5), the trial court is always required to exercise its independent judgment in determining whether to go along with or diverge from the "sentence concessions" in a plea agreement.[4] This is not surprising given what is at stake. Allowing the parties in a criminal case to require the judge to impose a particular sentence, regardless of whether she believes it is appropriate, justified, or fair, would bode ill for our criminal justice system. It is imperative that the trial court exercise its independent judgment in determining whether to adopt the sentence concessions in a plea agreement.

         ¶16 The question then is what options, if any, are available to the parties if, in the exercise of its independent judgment, the court rejects a sentence concession in a plea agreement after a defendant pleads guilty? Crim. P. 32(d) requires the court to "advise the defendant and the district attorney" that it is rejecting the sentence concession "and then call upon the defendant to either affirm or withdraw the plea of guilty." (Emphasis added.) Section 16-7-302(2) substantially mirrors Crim. P. 32(d). Significantly, neither section 16-7-302(2) nor Rule 32(d) contains a similar provision allowing the People to affirm the plea agreement or withdraw from it.[5] This omission is telling because the statute and the rule expressly refer to the People elsewhere. Of particular relevance here, they both direct the trial court to advise the defendant and the People whenever it decides to reject a sentence concession after the defendant has pled guilty. Yet, in the very next part of that sentence, the statute and the rule provide that the defendant may then withdraw from the plea agreement.

         ¶17 Subsection (2) of section 16-7-302 confirms that the legislature did not intend to permit the People to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial court rejects a sentence concession after the defendant has pled guilty. That subsection delineates the course of action the People may take in the event they are concerned that the court will disagree with a sentence concession in a plea agreement after the defendant pleads guilty:

If a tentative plea agreement has been reached which contemplates entry of a plea of guilty . . . in the expectation that . . . sentence concessions will be granted, the trial judge may, upon request of the parties, permit the disclosure to him of the tentative agreement and the reasons therefor in advance of the time for tender of the plea. He may then indicate to the district attorney and defense counsel or defendant whether he will concur in the ...

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