Criminal Procedure: SJC Allows Post-Plea Sentencing Reduction

Post-plea sentence reduction allowed: Commonwealth v. Rodriguez , SJC-10825 (January 12, 2012)

Summary: The SJC held that a judge has the authority, sua sponte, to reduce a defendant’s sentence after the Commonwealth and the defendant reached a plea agreement to plead guilty and join the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation, and after the judge had already imposed the recommended sentence. The Court held that where a judge acts on his own timely motion to revise or revoke a sentence, the judge has the authority to reduce that sentence where “it appears that justice may not have been done” despite whether a plea agreement includes an agreed sentence recommendation.

Issue: The issue, as articulated by the Court, is whether a judge “has the authority under Mass. R. Crim. P. 29(a) to reduce a sentence after the defendant and the Commonwealth entered into a plea agreement in which the Commonwealth agreed not to seek indictments against the defendant on the pending charges, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to the charges and join the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation, and the judge had imposed the recommended sentence.”

Discussion: The Court held that the judge does have the authority to do so and that neither Mass. R. Crim. P. 12 nor G.L. c. 278 § 18 declare that a plea may be vacated or that the Commonwealth may back out of the plea agreement where a judge imposes a sentence below that recommended by the prosecutor, even where there is an agreed recommendation in a plea agreement. In essence, the SJC reiterated that rule 12 protects “a defendant from the risk that the judge will exceed the prosecutor’s recommendation,” but doesn’t offer reciprocal protection to the prosecutor when imposing a lower sentence.

In reaching that decision, the SJC held that the judge has the discretion to determine a just sentence, determined by various, competing, considerations such as: “the severity of the crime, the role of the defendant in the crime, the need for general deterrence and specific deterrence, the defendant’s prior criminal record, the protection of the victim, the defendant’s risk of recidivism, and the extent to which a particular sentence will increase or diminish the risk of recidivism.” Commonwealth v. Donahue, 452 Mass. 256, 264 (2008).

Justice Spina, in a lengthy dissent, argued against the majority’s decision and asserted that the announced rule encroached upon the principle of separation of powers in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

Impact: It remains to be seen whether the ruling is limited to specific instances similar to the facts of the case or whether it will be broadly used by defense attorneys. In this case, the SJC seemed heavily influenced by what happened during the trial court’s Rule 29 hearing. Specifically, the trial judge learned that the original charge of trafficking in a Class A substance was in error, and that the substance was in Class B. It that mistaken belief that led the judge to accept the original plea agreement, which he later revised. In addition, the judge learned at the rule 29 hearing that the prosecution reduced the charge of trafficking in class A to possession in Class B before the plea agreement was entered into, and, finally, the defendant had a history of mental disorders and substance abuse that was not disclosed prior to sentencing.

Adding credence to the intention by the SJC that the rule be narrowly applied, Justice Cordy, in a separate concurrence, stated: “I have every reason to believe, however, that with rare exception, judges honor the joint recommendations of the parties as the carefully considered product of negotiation by attorneys most familiar with the. . .case and the defendant…” (emphasis added). Justice Cordy, and the majority, also recommended that the rule be referred to the Court’s standing advisory committee on the rules of criminal procedure for further review, assessment, and recommendation.

Wassem Amin

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