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Plea Agreements Threatened by Hamilton County Decision

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.

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Ohio Supreme Court: Prosecutor In One County Can’t Make A Plea Deal for Another County

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that a county prosecuting attorney does not have authority to enter into a plea agreement on behalf of the state for crimes committed wholly outside the county in which the prosecuting attorney has been elected.

This is an issue we highlighted just last week.

The case is State v. Billingsley, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4307.

In this case, the defendant was indicted in Summit County in connection with a string of robberies.  As part of a plea agreement, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery with firearm specifications and one count of attempted aggravated robbery.  In addition, he agreed to cooperate with the state in the prosecution of his co-defendants  by providing information about other robberies.  In exchange, the Summit County prosecuting attorney agreed to dismiss the remaining charges.  The prosecutor also agreed that if the defendant disclosed additional robberies that were not contained in the indictment, additional charges would not be brought against the defendant based on those crimes.  The prosecutor also noted on the record that she had been in contact with other counties and “that they will either not pursue charges on their robberies, or if they have already charged that they’ll run [any sentence] concurrent.”

Two months later, the defendant was indicted in Portage County.  The defendant moved to dismiss the charges on the grounds that under the terms of the Summit County plea agreement, he was immune from prosecution.

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that the Portage County prosecuting attorney was not a party to the plea agreement.  Plea agreements, the court noted are essentially contracts.  So in this case, the issue was whether the first prosecutor acted as an agent of the second.  While a prosecuting attorney has authority to enter into plea agreements on behalf of the state, this authority is limited to the county in which the prosecutor was elected.  The court said:  “a county prosecuting attorney does not have actual authority to enter into a plea agreement on behalf of the state with respect to crimes committed wholly outside his or her county.”

The court also rejected a claim that “fundamental fairness” required the court to enforce the plea agreement against the Portage County prosecuting attorney even if the Summit County prosecuting attorney was unauthorized to negotiate on his behalf. The court noted that the defendant had other remedies available, such as seeking to withdraw his guilty plea and moving to suppress the statements that he made in reliance on the agreement.


Plea Agreement in Neighboring County Is Not Binding on a County Prosecutor

A plea deal in one county is not binding in another county, according to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals.

The case is State v. Jackson, 2012-Ohio-4219.

In 2007, police investigated the theft of a large plasma television, an ATM, and a safe from a tavern in Butler County.  About a month later, the business owner found two men inside the business who had entered through a smashed glass door.  A video surveillance camera captured the men attempting to pry an ATM from the floor.

In 2009 the defendant was indicted for burglary, breaking and entering, grand theft, two counts of safecracking, and one count of attempted safecracking.

The defendant argued that the charges in Butler County should be dismissed because the defendant had entered into a plea agreement with the prosecutor in neighboring Hamilton County.  In order to resolve charges in Hamilton County, the defendant agreed to provide information regarding other break-ins.  The state agreed to a one-year prison sentence and would not charge him for any of the offenses that he admitted to.

The defendant became a suspect in the Butler County break-in when a detective in Butler County uploaded surveillance video onto a website in which other police officers throughout southwest Ohio could view the video and identify possible suspects.  The Defendant was identified by a detective in another agency.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument.  The court noted that “several other Ohio districts have resolved this issue and found that a county’s plea agreement does not prevent criminal charges in other counties when the criminal acts do not constitute allied offenses of similar import.”  The key to this issue is whether the prosecutor who made the plea deal “had actual, apparent, or contractual authority to bind the prosecutor in another county.”

The general rule is that a county prosecutor’s agency authority extends to the county line when investigating and prosecuting crimes.  In Ohio, county prosecutors are not considered to be agents of each other, able to plea bargain offenses that are committed outside their counties.  Thus, as with other contracts, if a county prosecutor is not a party to a plea agreement, the county prosecutor is not bound by the terms of that agreement.

In this case, because the Butler County Prosecutor was not part of the plea agreement, he could not be bound by the deal in Hamilton County.

The defendant was subsequently convicted of the offenses and sentenced to ten years in prison.



Appeals Court Reverses Conviction Because Plea Not Knowing and Voluntary

An Ohio court of appeals has found that a guilty plea was not voluntary when a defendant was not clearly informed of the possible penalties.

The case is State v. Black, 2012-Ohio-3774.

The defendant was indicted on ten charges, including aggravated robbery with a gun specification, kidnapping, and felonious assault.  He negotiated a plea bargain with the prosecutor.  He was to plead guilty to seven of the charges, and te remaining charges would be dismissed.

Before a court can accept a plea, a judge must strictly comply with the requirements of informing the defendant of his constitutional rights.  The defendant must also be informed of the nature of the charges and the maximum penalty.

The court concluded that the trial judge did not “conduct a guilty plea proceeding which fully or substantially complied with” the legal requirements.  This was in part because the “Defendant was not aware of the maximum possible penalty that he faced.  This is based on the maximum penalty not  being conveyed in court, and the penalty’s failure to appear in the written plea of guilty form.”

The appeals court also noted that “There is also a question of whether The Defendant fully understood the nature of the charges he pled to.”  The problem was the failure of the defendant counsel to adequately explain the charges to the defendant.  The court said:

the record does not reflect that defense counsel told the court he went over the entry of guilty plea form with the defendant before he signed it or that The Defendant had read the guilty plea form.  The Defendant’s trial counsel only affirmatively answered that he felt his efforts in representing The Defendant met the requirements of representation as set forth in the guilty plea form.  This question is ambiguous and the answer cannot be taken to mean that The Defendant’s counsel affirmatively stated that The Defendant had read the guilty plea form or that counsel had reviewed the law and facts with The Defendant.  Further, The Defendant never states to the trial court that he reviewed the law or facts with his counsel or that counsel reviewed the guilty plea form with him.  Based on the totality of these circumstances, we cannot find sufficient evidence that The Defendant understood the nature of the charges he plead to.

The case was remanded to the common pleas court for a trial.