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Supreme Court of Iowa: Sentence Vacated Because Prosecution Failed to Follow Spirit of Plea Agreement Requiring Recommendation of Suspended Sentence

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Iowa vacated a defendant’s sentence after finding the prosecution failed to honor the spirit of a plea agreement requiring that it recommend a suspended sentence.

Shane Michael Davis pleaded guilty on November 25, 2019, after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecutor. Davis entered an Alford plea to a lesser charge of lascivious acts on a child, a class D felony, and an aggravated misdemeanor charge of indecent contact with a child. The prosecutor agreed to follow the sentencing recommendation in the presentence investigation report (“PSI”). Davis acknowledged that the sentencing court was not obligated to follow the PSI’s recommendation.

Based on Davis’ “lack of criminal history and attachments to the community” the PSI recommended suspended prison sentences, supervised probation for five years, and placement in a treatment center for 180 days or until maximum benefits were received. It also recommended no contact orders, electronic monitoring, a $250 civil penalty, DNA sampling, placement on the sex offender registry, and a 10-year special sentence. Additionally, victim impact statements from the two child victims and their parents were attached to the PSI.

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor read the four victim impact statements in their entirety. Each one urged for a prison sentence, with the parents asking for the maximum sentence to be imposed. When the court asked the prosecutor for her sentence recommendation, the prosecutor perfunctorily noted the plea agreement required the State to follow the recommendations in the PSI, “so the State would join in those recommendations being made.” The prosecutor never specifically said the State recommends suspended sentences, and she made no further statement in support of that recommendation, despite having just read four victim impact statements verbatim advocating for prison time.

Davis’ counsel never objected that the State breached the plea agreement, and he asked for suspended sentences with two to five years’ probation. The court imposed a five-year prison sentence for lascivious acts on a child and a consecutive two-year sentence for indecent contact with a child, resulting in a seven-year total prison sentence. Davis appealed and hired a new attorney.

On appeal, Davis argued that the sentencing court improperly relied on victim impact statements and that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the State’s breach of the plea agreement.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Iowa Supreme Court granted review. During its review, the high court found the appellate court erred by dismissing Davis’ appeal for lack of jurisdiction because his appellate brief never explicitly explained how he had “good cause to appeal” under Iowa Code § 814.6. Although Davis’ brief should have discussed § 814.6 and State v. Damme, 944 N.W.2d 98 (Iowa 2020) (holding “that good cause exists to appeal from a conviction following a guilty plea when the defendant challenges his or her sentence rather than the guilty plea.”), but failed to do so, the Court explained that “Boldon made crystal clear that Davis could directly appeal the State’s alleged breach of the plea agreement,” which was decided after submission of Davis’ brief but prior to the Court of Appeals’ ruling. See State v. Boldon, 954 N.W.2d 62 (Iowa 2021) (“Because Boldon challenges the sentencing and his sentence [rather than guilty plea itself], we conclude he has established good cause to pursue this direct appeal as a matter of right.”).

Turning to the merits of the claim, the Court began its analysis by noting the plea agreement obligated the State to follow the recommendation in the PSI and that the PSI recommended suspended sentences. Yet, the Court stated, “[t]he prosecutor did not advocate for the court’s acceptance of the recommendation.” It explained: “The problem in this case is the juxtaposition of the prosecutor’s perfunctory endorsement of the PSI report’s recommendation for suspended sentences immediately after she read the four victim-impact statements calling for prison time, some urging the maximum sentences. The prosecutor should have followed her reading of those statements by specifically recommending suspended sentences and giving some reason in support of that recommendation.” Tellingly, the State’s brief did not address the issue on the merits, and it never asserted the prosecutor complied with her obligation under the parties’ plea agreement, according to the Court.

The Court stated that defendants waive fundamental rights when entering into a plea agreement, so it must “hold prosecutors and courts to the most meticulous standards of both promise and performance.” State v. Horness, 600 N.W.2d 294 (Iowa 1999). “A fundamental component of plea bargaining is the prosecutor’s obligation to comply with a promise to make a sentencing recommendation by doing more than “simply inform[ing] the court of the promise the State has made to the defendant with respect to sentencing.” State v. Bearse, 748 N.W. 2d 211 (Iowa 2008).

A prosecutor’s duty to “recommend” a sentence is defined as follows: (1) “to mention or introduce as being worthy of acceptance, use, or trial,” (2) “to make a commendatory statement about as being fit or worthy,” (3) “to bring forward as being fit or worthy,” (4) “present with approval,” (5) “indicate as being one’s choice for something or otherwise having one’s approval or support,” (6) “offer or suggest as favored by oneself.” Bearse.

“This prosecutor fell short of that obligation,” the Iowa Supreme Court concluded. “She said nothing to indicate that suspended sentences for Davis were worthy of the Court’s acceptance.”

The Court emphasized it was “not holding the prosecutor breached the plea agreement by reading the victim-impact statements at sentencing. Rather, we hold the prosecutor breached the parties’ agreement by failing to recommend the suspended sentences as the plea agreement and our precedent required.” The Court admonished that if “the prosecutor believed Davis deserved incarceration, she should not have committed to recommending suspended sentences. Buyer’s remorse does not excuse breaking a contract.”

Where the State breaches a plea agreement, the Court presumes prejudice, notwithstanding the lack of a contemporaneous objection by defense counsel. State v. Lopez, 872 N.W. 159, 170 (Iowa 2015).

Accordingly, the Court vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, vacated his sentence, and remanded for resentencing by a different judge. See: State v. Davis­­­­, 971 N.W.2d 546 (Iowa 2022). 

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Related legal cases

State v. Davis­­­­

State v. Boldon



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