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New Mexico Supreme Court Announces Trial Courts Retain Common Law Jurisdictional Authority to Correct Illegal Sentences, Allows Defendant to Withdraw Plea After Sentence Correction Involving Additional Parole Time

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of New Mexico allowed a defendant to withdraw his plea deal after the district court corrected his sentence to include a lengthier term of parole, because he could not “knowingly and voluntarily” take the deal without being aware of the mandatory parole term. The Court also announced that district courts retain their common law jurisdictional authority to correct an illegal sentence because historical changes leading to Rule 5-801 NMRA (2009) did not remove such authority.

Derrick Romero was charged in 2010 with criminal sexual penetration (“CSP”) in the second degree, in violation of NMSA 1978, § 30-9-11(E)(1) (2009). During a plea hearing, he pleaded guilty according to terms negotiated with the State, which included a 9-year term of imprisonment and that “probation would run concurrent with parole,” making no mention of parole length. On May 18, the day following his plea hearing, the district court announced a Plea and Disposition Agreement specifying “a mandatory TWO (2) years on parole on the second-degree felony count.” Then on May 31, the district court sua ponte entered an amended judgment correcting the parole length, such that his imprisonment would “be followed by a FIVE (5) to TWENTY (20) year parole period.”

In 2018, Romero filed a habeas petition, which included the claim that the district court lacked the jurisdiction to “correct” his initial sentence. Relying on State v. Torres, 272 P.3d 689 (N.M. 2012), the district court granted Romero’s petition, vacated its amended judgment, and reimposed the original two-year parole period.

The State appealed, asking the state Supreme Court to overrule Torres and order the district court to impose the period of parole mandated by statute.

The Court began by noting that the periods of parole included in all the judgments issued by the district court were illegal sentences. See § 31-21-10.1(A)(2) (requiring that a sentence for second degree CSP “shall include … an indeterminate period of supervised parole for a period of … not less than five years and up to the natural Life of the sex offender”).

The Torres Court interpreted Rule 5-801(a) NMRA as having “abrogated the common law principle that a district court retained inherent jurisdiction to correct illegal sentences.”

The Court determined this ruling was erroneous and based on a misunderstanding of the history of federal appellate rules and how they applied to Rule 5-801. It wrote that the federal Sentencing Reform Act’s “focus [was] on appellate review of sentences,” and there was “no indication that [Congress] intended to repudiate this long-standing authority of district courts” to correct an illegal sentence. Thus, the Court announced that Torres is overruled regarding abrogation of district courts’ jurisdiction to correct an illegal sentence.

It noted that this authority arises in equity, and “our long-standing rule [is] that only if a statute so provides with express language or necessary implication will New Mexico courts be deprived of their inherent equitable powers.” Quoting Torres.

Though the Rules of Criminal Procedure for State Courts Committee had modified Rule 5-801 multiple times to provide parity with federal rules, the Court of Appeals did not need to infer that these modifications abrogated the district courts’ power to correct an illegal sentence, the Court stated.

However, to forestall such concerns going forward, the Court directed the Rules Committee to clarify the length of time that a district court retains jurisdiction to correct an illegal sentence.

Romero also argued that, if the district court required a mandatory parole term of five-to-life on remand, that he be allowed to withdraw his plea. He based this claim on due process grounds based on the Fourteenth Amendment.

The State opposed this, making the counterclaim that his plea bargain made no provision for the length of parole, and therefore he was owed no consideration for such under the plea deal he made. It also cited United States v. Timmreck, 441 US 780 (1979), to bolster its argument that failing to notify a defendant of a mandatory parole period was merely a “technical violation” of due process, not a substantive one implicating constitutional concerns.

The Court rejected these arguments, noting that there were no constitutional concerns implicated in Timmreck, “because the ultimate sentence of ten years of imprisonment plus five years of parole was still within the maximum fifteen years of imprisonment described to him at the plea hearing.”

This is contrasted with Romero’s situation, who was not advised of any mandatory period of parole during his plea hearing. “What is at stake for an accused facing death or imprisonment demands the utmost solicitude of which courts are capable of canvassing the matter with the accused to make sure [the accused] has a full understanding of what the plea connotes and of its consequence.” Boykin v. Alabama, 395 US 238 (1969).

The Court wrote that, “[I]n contrast here, the five- to twenty-year parole period implicated more onerous consequences than the maximum possible penalty in the district court’s plea advisement and in its Plea and Disposition Agreement, and thus the due process violation was substantive and not merely technical.” Thus, the Court held that Romero was denied due process because “he was completely deprived of his right to a nowing and voluntary plea when his sentence was changed in the second amended J&S to include more onerous consequences than those explained at the plea hearing.” Boykin; Rule 5-303.

Accordingly, the Court remanded with instructions to the district court to impose a judgment which meets the mandatory length of parole specified in the statute and to grant Romero the opportunity to withdraw his plea. See: State v. Romero, 528 P.3d 640 (N.M. 2023).  

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Related legal case

State v. Romero

 

 

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