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Colorado Supreme Court Announces That the People Cannot Withdraw From a Plea Agreement After the Trial Court Rejects Stipulated Sentence

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Colorado announced that the People cannot withdraw from a plea agreement after the trial court accepts the defendant’s guilty plea but rejects the stipulated sentence contained in the agreement.

Christopher Anthon Mazzarelli entered into an agreement with the People whereby he pleaded guilty to criminally negligent child abuse (a Class 4 felony) in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of knowing or reckless child abuse (a Class 3 felony). The agreement provided that the sentence would be from two to eight years in prison and permitted each side to argue as to the amount of incarceration the court should impose. The court accepted Mazzarelli’s guilty plea but postponed sentencing pending a presentence report.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor acknowledged that the victim didn’t have any permanent injuries but urged the court to impose a sentence consistent with the agreement. The court was reluctant to send Mazzarelli to prison for “what might have happened.” The court announced it was not going to send Mazzarelli to prison and refused to accept the plea agreement. The court gave the prosecutor a week to decide if she wanted to withdraw from the plea agreement. The day before that next hearing, Mazzarelli filed a motion requesting a special prosecutor, arguing that the prosecutor had made “blatantly false” statements at the previous hearing. At the hearing on the following day, the trial court found the prosecutor’s false statements to be prosecutorial misconduct and denied her request to withdraw from the agreement as a sanction. The court then sentenced Mazzarelli to three years of supervised probation. The People appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed, ruling that the People were not permitted to withdraw from the plea agreement because: (1) the trial court had accepted Mazzarelli’s plea but had not agreed to be bound by the sentencing recommendations in the plea agreement; (2) when the trial court accepted the plea, it had not yet reviewed the presentence report; (3) the People had not alleged that Mazzarelli breached the plea agreement; and (4) the prosecutor’s misconduct led to the denial of her request to withdraw from the plea agreement. The Supreme Court granted the People’s petition for further review.

The Court explained that CRS § 16-7-302(3) requires the judge in every case to exercise an independent judgment in deciding whether to grant a sentence recommended in a plea agreement. In the context of plea agreements, the terms “sentence recommendations,” “sentence concessions,” “sentence agreements,” and “sentence stipulations” have the same meaning and have no binding effect on the trial court. People v. Wright, 573 P.2d 551 (Colo. 1978).

And CRS § 16-7-302(2), as well as Crim. P. Rule 32(d), mention only the defendant as a party who may withdraw from a plea agreement following his or her guilty plea. After the trial court accepts a guilty plea, CRS 16-7-302(2) and Rule 32(d) require the court to “advise the defendant and the district attorney” if it is rejecting the sentence concession “and then call upon the defendant to either affirm or withdraw the plea of guilty.” But there isn’t a similar provision in any statute or rule allowing the People to affirm the plea agreement or withdraw from it. Case precedent permits the People to withdraw from an accepted plea agreement — but only when “the defendant has substantially and materially breached the plea agreement by her action or inaction.” Keller v. People, 29 P.3d 290 (Colo. 2000).

The Court concluded that the statutes and rules authorized only the defendant to withdraw from a plea agreement, not the People. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals, but because the Supreme Court affirmed on different grounds, the opinion of the court of appeals was vacated. See: People v. Mazzarelli, 2019 CO 71 (2019). 

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