Maryland’s Highest Court Reviews Legality of Criminal Sentence Below a Binding Plea Agreement

Most states have court rules and laws that govern the preparation and enforceability of a plea agreement between a criminal defendant and the State. According to case law, plea agreements play a “crucial role” in the Maryland criminal justice system. Part of the allure of a plea agreement is the level of certainty it provides to the person charged with a crime, as well as to the State. Furthermore, the use of plea agreements (rather than a trial) serves to reduce the overcrowding of courts by disposing of cases in an more efficient manner. It is important to ensure that any applicable legal rules are complied with in order to protect one’s rights at this very important stage, as well as throughout the whole criminal process.  If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

The highest court in Maryland recently addressed the legality of a criminal sentence that is below the terms of the binding plea agreement.  In this case, a grand jury indicted Tommy Garcia Bonilla back in 1989 on two counts of first-degree murder as well as other serious crimes.  Count I and Count III represented the two separate murder charges.  In 1990, Bonilla and the State entered into a binding plea agreement with the following terms.  If called upon by the State, Bonilla would testify against one of his co-defendants and would plead guilty to Counts I and III. In return, the State agreed that Bonilla would receive a sentence of life imprisonment on Count III, and a consecutive life imprisonment sentence with all but 20 years suspended on Count I.

The judge approved the plea agreement.  At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel reversed the terms of the plea agreement, incorrectly stating the terms:  a sentence of life imprisonment on Count I and a consecutive sentence of life imprisonment with all but 20 years suspended on Count III. Neither party recognized the error.

More than 20 years later, Bonilla petitioned the court to correct the illegal sentence to receive credit for time spent in custody.  He claimed that his sentence on Count I was illegal because it was greater than the sentence agreed upon by the parties. The State responded by moving to correct the entire sentence, arguing that the sentences were illegal because they differed from the binding plea agreement.  The circuit court agreed and ordered a re-sentencing in accordance with the original agreement.  Bonilla appealed.  The court of special appeals affirmed the judgment, concluding that the original sentence, as it pertained to Count III, was illegal because it was “below” the binding plea agreement.

The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.  First, the Court looked to the language of Rule 4-345(a) to determine what constitutes an “illegal sentence.”  Under the Rule, “the illegality must inhere in the sentence itself, rather than stem from trial court error during the sentencing proceeding.” Under Rule 4-243(c)(3), the Court points out that, once a plea agreement is approved, “the judge shall embody in the judgment the agreed sentence…” Maryland courts have held that a sentence that exceeds the terms of a plea agreement is inherently illegal under these Rules. Furthermore, courts have also held that Rule 4-243 requires “strict compliance.”  The Court relied on these cases in concluding that a sentence that falls below the binding plea agreement results in a sentence that is inherently illegal.

There are many vitally important aspects to a criminal case.  The outcome can significantly affect the future of the person arrested or charged with a crime.  An experienced criminal defense attorney will work to prepare a solid defense to the charges.  Anthony A. Fatemi has extensive experience handling criminal defense cases throughout Maryland.  Our office will work diligently to develop a strong strategy to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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Maryland Court of Special Appeals Reinstates Criminal Conviction

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