A Hamilton County case on the enforceability of plea agreements threatens to undermine the entire system of plea bargains in Ohio courts.
The case is State v. Gilbert, 2013-Ohio-238.
The Defendant was convicted of murder and related weapons offenses in 2011.
In May 2010, the Defendant entering into a detailed plea agreement with the prosecutor. The Defendant agreed to enter pleas of guilty to reduced charges in exchange for an agreement to testify truthfully in a case against his father.
A year later, the prosecutor moved to vacate the plea and sentence. The prosecutor allged that the Defendant had not provided truthful testimony. The trial court vacated the original sentence and imposed a new sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
The court of appeals vacated the new sentence. The court noted that “Generally, Ohio trial courts lack the authority to reconsider their own valid final judgments in criminal cases.” The few exceptions include clerical errors and to decide motions to withdraw a plea or consider newly discovered evidence. There are also limited excpetions for habeas corpus and post-conviction relief proceedings.
None of the exceptions applied in this case.
The state argued “that the facts implicate the distinction between a trial court’s lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and a trial court’s improper exercise of jurisdiction or authority.” In other words, “the parties were properly before the court on the state’s motion to vacate the pleas because the common pleas court has subject matter jurisdiction over felony cases.”
The court rejected this jurisdictional argument as “unpersuasive.” The court also rejecteda state argument that the trial court retains jurisdiction to continue proceedings against a defendant in the event of a breach of a breached plea agreement. The court held that a plea agreement can not give the trial court the authority to reconsider its final judgment.
Judge Fisher wrote to note that “Given the current state of the law, [he was] compelled to join the lead opinion in this case.” However, the judge was concerned that this “case exposes an obvious deficiency in the power of Ohio’s courts to enforce plea agreements, a central element of our criminal justice system. “
Judge Dinkelacker dissented. The judge noted that the defendant’s “scheme of dishonesty and disrespect for the justice system should not be rewarded.” The judge was also concerned that “To do otherwise undermines the entire plea arrangement system. “
More details on the case and the controversy can be found in the Cincinnati Enquirer.