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South Dakota Supreme Court Rules that Trial Court Cannot Reject a Plea Agreement It Already Implicitly Accepted

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota reversed a trial court’s decision to reject a binding plea agreement because it had already implicitly accepted the agreement at the change-of-plea hearing. The January 24, 2018, ruling remanded the case back to the lower court for sentencing in accordance with the plea agreement in question.

Landon Lyndale Hale and two co-defendants were indicted on 19 counts related to the kidnapping and robbery of Caden Jackson in July 2016. The State offered Hale a great deal: Plead guilty to one count of aggravated assault and cooperate against the other defendants, and he would be guaranteed a sentence with a cap of suspended prison time. Hale agreed.

At the change-of-plea hearing, the trial judge explained the plea deal and possible sentence to Hale, specifically noting that “[t]he plea agreement here does not let me use any of the penitentiary time immediately” and “[a]s long as you comply with the terms of my probation, you can keep yourself out of the pen.” Hale agreed with all of that, and the court had him formally plead guilty to the aggravated assault charge.

Hale then kept his side of the bargain and cooperated. Both of his co-defendants soon also pleaded guilty. So imagine Hale’s surprise when immediately following those guilty pleas, the judge informed his lawyer and the State that she intended to reject the plea agreement.

At a hearing on the matter, both Hale and the State argued that the court had already accepted the deal. The judge said she hadn’t by making a very fine distinction: Although she had expressly accepted Hale’s plea at the plea hearing, she did not accept the plea agreement, either expressly or implicitly. The judge then formally rejected the plea agreement. Hale filed a petition with the South Dakota Supreme Court for an intermediate discretionary appeal. The high court accepted the petition and reversed the trial court.

As an initial matter, the Court found that although the agreement was “not a model of clarity,” it was a binding plea agreement pursuant to SDCL 23A-7-8(3). As such, if the trial court had, in fact, accepted the agreement, it was required to sentence Hale within the bounds of the agreed-upon range. The larger question was whether the trial judge accepted the agreement at the change-of-plea hearing. If she had, then she was stuck with the agreed-upon disposition.

The Court found that the trial judge did implicitly accept the plea agreement. The South Dakota Rules of Criminal Procedure contemplate a judge accepting, rejecting, or deferring a decision on a plea agreement when it is offered. Here, the trial judge did not expressly take any of these actions. But South Dakota Supreme Court precedent also recognizes the possibility of a trial court implicitly accepting a plea agreement. State v. Shumaker, 792 N.W.2d 174 (S.D. 2010). According to the Court, that’s what happened at Hale’s change-of-plea hearing.

The Court came to this conclusion after reviewing the trial judge’s statement at the hearing. In short, the trial court made it abundantly clear that it accepted the deal, whether it expressly said so or not. “[T]he context of the court’s statements at the change of plea hearing informed Hale that the court accepted the agreement and intended to sentence Hale as provided in that agreement,” said the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The Court also noted that while most disputes over the acceptance and performance of a plea bargain involve the State not upholding its end of the deal, the contract principles involved in this analysis apply to the courts as well. “[T]he duty of the state to perform its part of a plea bargain applies with equal force to the trial court,” instructed the Court, quoting its prior opinion in State v. Lohnes, 344 N.W.2d 686 (S.D. 1984).

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order rejecting the plea agreement and remanded the case with instructions that the trial court sentence Hale consistent with the plea agreement. See: State v. Hale, 907 N.W.2d 56 (S.D. 2018). 

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