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Is a plea agreement an enforceable contract?


Yes, it is. Most criminal cases end in plea bargains. These plea agreements are contracts. Once signed, the obligations of the agreement must be honored. The accused agrees to plead guilty and give up certain rights, such as the right to appeal to a higher court. And the prosecutor agrees to a certain reduced sentence so that the accused knows what he getting. The judge, however, is not bound by this agreement and can reject it. What happens when the prosecutor argues to the judge that the agreed upon sentence is too lenient? This should never happen with a plea agreement, right? Unfortunately, as a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer, I have seen prosecutors who have attempted to do this.

Take the case of U.S. v. Morales-Heredia, decided by the 9th. Circuit Court of Appeals on October 8, 2014. Mr. Morales plead guilty to illegally re-entering the United States from Mexico. He made the standard plea concessions: an early plea of guilt, no pre-trial motions and no right to appeal. The prosecutor promised a four level reduction in his sentencing guidelines. Both parties agreed not seek any variances or changes in the deal. But at the time of sentencing, the prosecutor wrote to the judge that Morales had a 20 year criminal history, including convictions for selling heroin and domestic violence. The prosecutor further wrote that Morales had "a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States" and that he "poses a danger to the community because his criminal history includes both drug trafficking and battery." Obviously, this was unnecessary on the prosecutor's part. Morales' defense lawyer claimed (correctly) that the prosecutor had breached the plea agreement by failing to recommend the sentence that they had agreed to, in this case, 6 months in prison.

Not surprisingly, the judge rejected the plea agreement (after learning about Morales' extensive criminal background), did not allow Morales to take his plea back (which the Judge should have done) and sentenced Morales to triple the agreed - upon sentence- 21 months. Morales appealed.

The higher court ruled that the prosecutor breached the plea agreement through its repeated and inflammatory references to Morales's criminal history in it's sentencing memorandum. The higher court enforced the literal terms of the promise and required the prosecutor's strict compliance with it. Morales will end up getting the six month sentence he bargained for.

Lesson Learned:

It's hard to believe that a prosecutor would agree to a particular sentence and then argue differently in a memorandum to a judge. It's even harder to believe that a judge would be swayed by a prosecutor's argument and then not do what it was supposed to do, that is, reject the plea agreement (if the court thought it too lenient) and allow the accused to take his plea back. This is an unfortunate example of not being able to trust a government prosecutor and government judge to do what they were duty bound to do. Fortunately for Morales, he had a good criminal lawyer who pointed out that a plea agreement is a contract and what the prosecutor did was a clear breach of that contract. Morales's lawyer demanded specific performance (in this case, a six month sentence for his client) and will get it.

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