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Court of Appeals of Maryland Clarifies Issues Involving Plea Agreements and Sentence Modifications Under Justice Reinvestment Act

In 2015, the Maryland General Assembly established the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council (“JRCC”) to develop data driven policies for reducing the state’s incarcerated population, reducing recidivism, reducing spending on corrections, and reinvesting the resulting saving in public safety. The JRCC issued a final report in December 2015. It made 19 recommendations.

Many of those recommendations became law with the passing of the JRA in 2016. The JRA, among other things, eliminated mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment without the possibility of parole required by existing law for defendants convicted of certain drug offenses and repeat offenders. The JRA further provided that a defendant who had received a mandatory minimum sentence prior to October 1, 2017, which was the effective date of this part of the JRA, could ask the sentencing court to reduce the sentence provided the defendant meets the criteria in the JRA. The JRA was codified in Maryland Code, Criminal Law Article, § 5-609.1.

The Court of Special Appeals had certified questions in three defendants’ cases as to the applicability of the JRA to them. Those defendants entered their pleas in accord with court approved plea agreements, and one of them waived the right to seek modification of his sentence. The Court of Appeals noted that in 2019, 95.1% of criminal cases were resolved via a guilty plea, and 83.9% of those cases involved plea agreements.

The first question the Court resolved was whether defendants who entered into a binding plea agreement could seek a modification under § 5-609.1. That law sets forth three eligibility criteria for modification of a sentence: (1) the mandatory minimum sentence was imposed on or before September 30, 2017, (2) the sentence resulted from a conviction of a drug offense defined in §§ 5-602 through 5-606, and (3) the application was submitted to the court by September 30, 2018, unless good cause was shown.

Once a defendant meets the eligibility requirements, the circuit court is charged with exercising its discretion to decide if modification is a proper remedy. In exercising that discretion, the JRA directs the court to consider the nature of the crime, the defendant’s background, and prospects for rehabilitation.

In holding that the JRA authorizes a circuit court to deviate from the mandatory minimum sentence that was part of a court approved plea agreement, the Court observed that § 5-609.1 states in the first sentence that, “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” it applies to eligible defendants. Section 5-609.1 “was one part of [the] sea change in policy related to sentencing of drug offenders and was intended to ensure that a key element of the new approach to sentencing was equally available to offenders already serving sentences,” the Court explained.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that plea agreements are contracts that do not allow modification. “While contract principles may be useful in interpreting and implementing plea agreements, the widespread use of plea agreements does not make criminal sentencing a subset of contract law,” the Court stated. “The prosecutor does not have a vested right in a sentencing range previously set in statute or, indeed, in a particular outcome in any individual case,” according to the Court.

Having found a plea agreement does not bar a motion under § 5-609.1, the Court turned to the question of whether a binding plea agreement that waived the right to seek modification of sentence bars the defendant from seeking relief under that section. The Court determined the rationale underpinning the answer to the first question applies equally to this question. Thus, it held a waiver provision in a plea agreement does not bar an eligible defendant from seeking, or a circuit court from granting, a modification of a mandatory minimum sentence under § 5-609.1.

Next, the Court turned to the question of whether a modification motion can be denied without a hearing. The Court found that § 5-609.1 does not have an explicit hearing requirement. It only provides that the reviewing court can hold a hearing. It noted that Maryland Rule 4-342, which is the rule to file for sentence modification, necessarily involves a hearing when a defendant is sentenced or resentenced. That rule, however, does not control motions under § 5-609.1.

Nonetheless, while “CR Section 5-609.1 does not mandate a hearing in all cases, a court called upon to decide a motion under CR § 5-609.1 should ordinarily hold a hearing to ensure that it is exercising its discretion in accordance with the criteria in that statute,” the Court instructed. It explained that “A cold record of a past conviction is unlikely to give the necessary insight into the factors to be considered and the decisions to be made.”

Finally, the Court held that denial of a motion under § 5-609.1 is appealable because the statute shifts the burden of persuasion on certain criteria to the State, which results in “a decision on that motion that is similar to a re-sentencing that results in a final judgment,” according to the Court.

“The decision on such a motion is committed to the discretion of the circuit court and the standard of review is abuse of discretion, which may include legal error, such as the circuit court failing to recognize or exercise its discretion.”

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