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Iowa Supreme Court Orders Dismissal of Charges that State Brought in Breach of Plea Agreement

The Supreme Court of Iowa ordered the dismissal of charges after determining the State breached a plea agreement wherein the State had promised the charges would not be brought.
A fire on January 26, 2018, burned a pole barn in Powshiek County. Poweshiek County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Kivi believed the fire was intentionally started and focused an investigation on Montezuma firefighter Chance Ryan Beres as the arsonist. Shortly thereafter, there were additional unexplained fires, including an April 12 fire burning a grass field and a shed. And an April 29 fire burning grass that was followed by another fire on April 30 at the same location that burned an abandoned farmhouse.

Investigators obtained a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on Beres’ vehicle. An abandoned barn was burned in a subsequent fire on May 27, 2018, and the GPS tracking data showed Beres was at the scene of the fire shortly before the fire started. Beres was arrested for starting that fire.
Beres admitted to Kivi that he had started the May 27 barn fire and the April 12 grass fire. He denied starting the other three fires. Investigators later obtained cellphone records and cell-site location information (“CSLI”) that showed Beres was at or near the scene of the other fires before, during, and after each fire. Beres was charged with second-degree arson in relation to the May 27 barn fire.

He entered into a plea agreement that required him to plead guilty to the barn fire and to cooperate truthfully in an interview with Kivi concerning Beres’ involvement in the other fires.

In exchange for his plea, the State agreed to not bring any additional charges related to fires occurring before the May 27 fire. The agreement contained no recommendation as to sentencing.

At a plea hearing on July 9, 2018, the parties informed the district court of the terms of the agreement, and Beres entered his guilty plea. Sentencing was set for October 1, 2018. Neither Kivi nor any representative from the State contacted Beres to conduct the agreed-upon interview prior to sentencing — even though defense counsel twice left voicemails for Kivi requesting that he do so.

Finally, on the morning of October 1, defense counsel received a voicemail from the county attorney stating that Beres would be receiving additional charges and that the purpose of Beres’ interview with Kivi had been to aid in the investigation — but due to additional evidence obtained by Kivi, the interview was no longer needed.

Then during an informal discussion just moments before the sentencing hearing, the county attorney reiterated he would be bringing additional charges against Beres and suggested that if Beres wanted to withdraw his plea the State would not oppose. Beres declined to withdraw his plea and proceeded with sentencing. Neither party raised a possible breach or modification of the plea agreement.

A presentence investigation report (“PSI”) discussed Beres’ involvement in the other fires, but upon objection, the district court did not consider that information. The court entered a deferred judgment and placed Beres on probation for five years. The following month, the State brought four additional charges against Beres related to the fires occurring before the May 27 fire. Beres moved to dismiss those charges, arguing that the State violated the plea agreement in bringing them. The district court denied the motion to dismiss the charges, and Beres took an interlocutory appeal. The Iowa Supreme Court stayed the proceedings pending the outcome of the appeal.

The Court observed “[p]lea bargains are akin to contracts.” State v. Macke, 933 N.W.2d 226 (Iowa 2019). When a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor that was part of the inducement or consideration for the plea, the promise must be fulfilled. Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971). Because of the important role plea agreements play in America’s scheme of justice, strict compliance with the terms of those agreements is required. State v. Bearse, 748 N.W.2d 211 (Iowa 2008). When the State breaches the agreement by failing to perform as promised, the defendant is entitled to the remedy of specific performance. Macke. If the prosecution breaches the agreement by bringing additional charges, the court may enforce the agreement by dismissing the indictment. United States v. Brown, 801 F.2d 352 (8th Cir. 1986).

The State argued on appeal that because Beres was never interviewed and the interview was a condition of the agreement, the State’s agreement not to bring other charges went away. But the Court disagreed. When a party’s breach of a contract contributes to the non-occurrence of another party’s duty, that non-occurrence is excused. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 245. Said succinctly, it was the State that determined it no longer needed the interview, so the State couldn’t use its failure to schedule an interview to claim that Beres didn’t honor the plea agreement. Emp. Benefits Plus, Inc. v. Des Moines Gen. Hosp., 535 N.W.2d 149 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995).

The State also argued that after entering into the agreement, it obtained additional “damning evidence” that made the interview of no value to the State. When pressed, the State claimed that this additional evidence was the CSLI evidence. While admitting the State had the evidence before entering into the agreement, the State argued on appeal that it hadn’t analyzed the evidence to determine the strength of the evidence until after the agreement.

The Court rejected this argument as well, determining that the State had all the pertinent evidence of Beres’ involvement in the fires before the plea hearing. The State was basically arguing “frustration of purpose,” whereby a party is relieved of a contractual obligation if the party’s principal purpose for entering into the contract was frustrated by the occurrence of an event of which the party assumed would not occur. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 265. This principle was illustrated in Krell v. Henry, 2 KB 740 (Eng. 1903) where a renter’s obligation to rent a flat for two days to observe the King’s coronation was discharged when the King developed appendicitis, and the coronation was postponed. But in the instant case, the State could not “point to a new event that altered the landscape” because, as already determined, it had the pertinent evidence against Beres before entering into the agreement.

Finally, the Court rejected the State’s argument that Beres ratified its unilateral modification of the plea agreement when he refused the State’s offer to withdraw from the agreement and start over. But Beres’ failure to respond wasn’t evidence of any ratification on his part. When the State told Beres it planned to bring additional charges and offered not to oppose Beres’ motion to withdraw his plea, the State had not yet breached the agreement. When a breach is anticipated, the injured party may wait until the breach is completed before taking action to hold the party responsible for nonperformance. Berryhill v. Hatt, 428 N.W.2d 647 (Iowa 1988).

Furthermore, the State’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the agreement and an offer not to oppose Beres’ motion to withdraw his plea wasn’t a “new agreement” as evidenced by the fact that the State did not inform the district court at sentencing of any new or modified agreement (which the State was required to do under Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.8(2)(c)). And most importantly, “the State may withdraw from a plea bargain at any time prior to, but not after, actual entry of the guilty plea by the defendant....” State v. Weig, 285 N.W.2d 19 (Iowa 1979). There was no new agreement to be ratified because the State could not legally withdraw from the plea agreement in October because Beres had pleaded guilty in July.

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