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California Court of Appeal: Defendants Who Plead Guilty to Stipulated Sentence Eligible for Resentencing Under Amended § 1170.91

by Douglas Ankney

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, held that defendants who plead guilty to a stipulated sentence are eligible for resentencing under California Penal Code § 1170.91, as amended. (Note: All statutory references are to the California Penal Code.)

In 2002, Ronnie Keith Harrell, pursuant to a plea agreement, pleaded guilty to a stipulated sentence of 28 years for robbery and related enhancements in exchange for dismissal of other charges. In 2020, Harrell petitioned for resentencing under § 1170.91, alleging he suffered from military service related disorders. Citing People v. King, 52 Cal. App. 4th 783 (2020), the trial court denied the petition, ruling that Harrell was ineligible for relief because he had stipulated to the sentence. The trial court’s ruling was affirmed on appeal.

In 2023, Harrell petitioned again for resentencing under § 1170.91, arguing that the amendments to the statute—effective January 1, 2023—meant that persons serving stipulated sentences are no longer categorically ineligible for relief. The trial court denied the second petition, ruling that the issue had already been decided and affirmed on appeal. Harrell timely appealed.

The Court observed that at the time of Harrell’s first petition, § 1170.91 provided:

“(a) If the court concludes that a defendant convicted of a felony offense is, or was, a member of the United States military who may be suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of his or her military service, the court shall consider the circumstance as a factor in mitigation when imposing a term under subdivision (b).”

“(b)(1) A person currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction, whether by trial or plea, who is, or was, a member of the United States military and who may be suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of his or her military service may petition for a recall of sentence … to request resentencing pursuant to subdivision (a).”

“(3) … If the person satisfies the criteria [in this subdivision], the court may, in its discretion, resentence the person.”

The holding in King that a person serving a stipulated sentence was ineligible for relief under that statute was based on two reasons. First, when “a defendant who enters into a plea agrees to a stipulated sentence, upon accepting the plea, the trial court may not proceed as to the plea other than as specified in the plea.” King. That is, a trial court must impose the sentence as agreed upon in the plea.

Second, § 1170.91 required that the sentence being recalled be “imposed under subdivision (b) of § 1170.” This required the court to exercise its discretion in deciding whether to impose an upper, middle, lower term. But when imposing a stipulated sentence, the court does not exercise that discretion; consequently, a stipulated term is not imposed “pursuant to subsection (b),” as required by § 1170.91(a) to be eligible for resentencing.

But the Legislature amended § 1170.91, effective January 1, 2023. Those amendments, inter alia, struck the language requiring the sentence be imposed pursuant to subdivision (b)—intentionally nullifying King’s second reason for its holding.

However, it was unclear if the amendments nullified King’s first reason, i.e., the amendments were ambiguous as to whether courts could or could not reduce a stipulated sentence. Because the amendments were ambiguous, the Court must look to their legislative history. People v. Prudholme, 531 P.3d 341 (Cal. 2023).

A Senate bill analysis stated: “This bill expands [§ 1170.91] to include sentences where the plea agreement was for a specified term of years.” And “[t]his bill extends the current recall and resentencing law to persons who plead to a stipulated sentence by removing the requirement that the person was sentenced under Penal Code § 1170, subdivision (b).… It is unclear whether courts will interpret the law to require the entire agreement to be voided to resentence the petitioner.” Another Senate bill analysis stated: “Once the court has accepted the terms of the negotiated plea, it lacks jurisdiction to alter the terms of a plea bargain so that it becomes more favorable to a defendant unless the parties agree. This bill would expressly state that if the defendant is eligible for resentencing, the court may [reduce the sentence] regardless of whether the original sentence was imposed after a trial or plea.”

The Court concluded that “the Legislature clearly intended to make persons serving a stipulated sentence eligible for relief under § 1170.91.” The Court further observed that in Doe v. Harris, 302 P.3d 598 (Cal. 2013), the California Supreme Court held that a plea agreement “does not have the effect of insulating [the parties] from changes in the law that the Legislature has intended to apply to them.” But Doe also instructed that retroactive application of amendments are subject to constitutional limitations. However, the Court in the current case explained that since the People had not argued retroactive application violates the constitution, any such arguments were waived. Finally, the Court cautioned that its “opinion should not be read as deciding the unconstitutionality of § 1170.91 as applied to petitioners serving a stipulated sentence.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order denying Harrell’s petition. See: People v. Harrell, 95 Cal. App. 5th 161 (2023).  

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People v. Harrell



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