Improper sentencing nixes plea bargain

Jessica Robertson, Volume 50 Articles Editor

JUDGE ALCALA DELIVERED THE OPINION FOR A UNANIMOUS COURT.

The issue in this case is what remedy is proper for an illegal sentence imposed as a result of a charge-bargained guilty plea. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that parties in this situation must be returned to their original positions prior to entering into a negotiated plea-bargain for an illegal range of punishment.

In Thomas v. State, Thomas entered an open plea of guilty to state-jail felony theft as a lessor-included offense of third-degree felony engaging in organized criminal activity. The State sought to enhance the state-jail felony with two prior charges. As a result, the parties incorrectly believed that appellant was subject to a punishment range for a second-degree felony, subsequently causing the sentencing to be illegally set out of range. Counsel for Thomas successfully persuaded the court of appeals to uphold the plea bargain and hold a new punishment trial. The State contends in its petition for review, however, that the proper remedy is to set aside the plea and judgment because the bargained-for exchange has been undermined.

Here, the Court recognized that—based on the contractual nature of plea bargains—a charge bargain is functionally similar to a sentence bargain when being subsequently challenged. Where a material provision in the plea bargain cannot be specifically performed by one side, the bargain agreement is unenforceable. Accordingly, the proper remedy when a portion of either type of plea agreement is unenforceable to one party’s detriment is to set aside the plea agreement and restore the parties to their original bargaining positions.

The Court concluded that the statutorily unauthorized sentencing period was a material provision in the charge bargain that made the entire plea deal unenforceable; thus, the Court set aside the guilty plea and remanded the case to return both parties to their original positions.

Thomas v. State, No. PD-0295-16 (Tex. Crim. Apr. 5, 2017).