California Court Reverses Defendant’s Sentence Following Open Guilty Plea

Many California DUI cases can be fought on a number of issues, ranging from motions to suppress chemical test results to arguing the operation element at trial. However, a truly experienced California criminal defense attorney can recognize when a client risks more by taking a case to trial than by pleading guilty. Indeed, prosecutors and judges often assign significant weight to a defendant’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions and may recommend or impose significantly reduced sentences in some instances.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an interesting opinion in a California DUI case requiring the court to determine if the defendant’s sentence following an open (non-negotiated) guilty plea must be reversed because she was sentenced by a judge other than the one who took her plea. The opinion is interesting for several reasons, in part because it acknowledges the reality that a defendant’s sentence can significantly depend on the propensities of the judge hearing the case.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving while intoxicated when she lost control of her vehicle. The vehicle rolled over, and in the process, the defendant’s eight-year-old son was thrown from the car and died. The defendant was charged with numerous offenses, including gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

The defendant entered an open guilty plea in front of the assigned judge. An open guilty plea is a plea in which the defendant has not negotiated a sentence with the prosecution, and is relying on the judge to use his or her discretion in fashioning a sentence. Typically, open guilty pleas are entered when the prosecution is not making a fair offer, and the defendant believes that the judge hearing the case would sentence her more favorably.

Before entering her plea, the defendant filled out the necessary paperwork, outlining the rights that she was giving up by entering her plea. In a box next to the phrase, “I agree that any judge may impose sentence on me,” the defendant placed an “X.” The case was reassigned to another judge, who imposed a sentence of 11 years and four months imprisonment. The defendant appealed, arguing that she never agreed to be sentenced by a judge other than the one who took her plea.

The Court’s Decision

The court agreed with the defendant, and reversed her sentence, remanding the case for a new sentencing hearing. The court explained that there is a significant range of potential sentences for most offenses, and thus, “the propensity in sentencing demonstrated by a particular judge is an inherently significant factor in the defendant’s decision to enter a guilty plea.”

The court acknowledged that a defendant may agree to be sentenced by a judge other than the one taking her plea; however, to do so, the court must obtain a valid waiver from the defendant. Here, the “X” placed in the box was not sufficient to establish the defendant’s waiver of her right, and thus, the court held that the judge that took her plea should resentence her. If that judge is no longer on the bench, the court explained that the defendant should be allowed to withdraw her plea.

Have You Been Arrested for a California Crime?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a California crime, contact Attorney John Noonan. At the Law Offices of John W. Noonan, we represent clients charged with all types of traffic-related severe offenses, including California DUI charges, vehicular manslaughter cases, and California hit-and-run accidents. Attorney Noonan has over 55 years of experience, and knows what it takes to effectively represent his clients at every stage of the proceeding. To learn more about how we can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call (925) 886-4281 to schedule a free consultation today.

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