Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Not What She Bargained For: Supreme Court Of Idaho Addresses Issue Of Whether Government Breached Plea Agreement In Harboring A Felon Appeal
About 90% of criminal cases in the United States are resolved by plea bargains, and it is well established that if the prosecution fails to adhere to the terms of a plea agreement, it constitutes good cause for the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. In its recent opinion in State v. Lampien, 2009 WL 4928357 (Idaho 2009), the Supreme Court of Idaho addressed an issue that is less clear and that has split courts across the country: Is a law enforcement agency bound by a prosecutor's plea agreement?
two police officers and two probation and parole officers arrived at Melanie Lampien's apartment in an attempt to locate Lampien's husband, Nicholas McKenna. Knowing that McKenna was wanted for outstanding felony probation violations, Lampien met the officers outside. Although she knew that McKenna was hiding inside the apartment, she told the officers that she had not seen McKenna and did not know where he was. The officers asked Lampien whether McKenna had a gun, and Lampien responded that she did not think so. Suspecting that McKenna was in the apartment, the officers returned later the same day and entered the apartment to find McKenna brandishing a gun. In the attempt to take McKenna into custody, one police officer and two probation officers were injured. McKenna died as a result of gunshot wounds sustained in the encounter.
Lampien was thereafter charged with harboring a felon and "entered into a nonbinding plea agreement in which she agreed to plead guilty and the State agreed to recommend probation with no prison time and to not oppose a withheld judgment." At Lampien's subsequent sentencing,
the district court allowed the three injured officers to give victim impact statements over Lampien's objection. The officers stated that they believed Lampien should serve a prison sentence, largely based on their belief that she lied about McKenna not having a gun. Lampien testified that McKenna had told her he had disposed of his gun, and that she had believed him. The prosecutor, too, explained that his lenient sentencing recommendation was due in part to his belief that Lampien truly did not know McKenna had a gun. The district court rejected the prosecutor's recommendation and sentenced Lampien to five years in prison, with a minimum period of confinement of three years.
Lampien thereafter filed a motion under Idaho Criminal Rule 35 for reduction of her sentence, the State argued in opposition to the motion, and the court denied the motion. Lampien subsequently appealed, claiming, inter alia, that prosecution breached "the terms of the plea agreement by permitting the officers to make victim statements at the sentencing hearing." The Supreme Court of Idaho noted that there was a split of authority among other jurisdictions "on the issue of whether a law enforcement agency is bound by a prosecutor's plea agreement and, thus, whether the agency's failure to adhere to the terms of the plea agreement constitutes good cause for withdrawal of a guilty plea."
Ultimately, however, the court found that it did not have to resolve this issue because
these cases all deal with a state agency acting in its investigative capacity, while the case at bar deals with members of law enforcement agencies acting in their individual capacities as victims under the protections of Article I, Section 22 of the Idaho Constitution and the provisions of Idaho Code section 19-5306.
The court also did not have to resolve this issue because Lampien claimed that the prosecution breached the plea agreement by arguing against her motion under Idaho Criminal Rule 35 for reduction of her sentence, and the court agreed with this argument. The Idaho Supremes thus vacated the district court's denial of Lampien's motion and remanded to the district court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.