Massachusetts Appeals Court Opinion Illustrates Possible Perils of Pleading Guilty in Superior Court

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the guilty plea of an armed robber in an opinion that highlighted the danger criminal defendants sometimes face in pleading guilty to crimes in superior court.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Sylvia.

The defendant was charged with armed robbery, unlawful possession of a gun, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, armed assault in a dwelling, and being an armed career criminal after he stole 20 pounds of marijuana from a drug dealer.  The defendant’s friend made plans to buy the marijuana from the dealer and the defendant tagged along, purportedly as the person who would be supplying the money for the drugs.  However, once the defendant and his friend arrived at the dealer’s apartment, the defendant pulled out a gun and ordered the dealer to get on the floor.  A scuffle ensued and the dealer was able to call the police, providing a description of the defendant, his friend, and the car in which they escaped.  The cops found the car, which was being driven by the defendant, and attempted to stop it.  The defendant and his friend jumped out of the car and fled on foot, leaving behind the stolen marijuana and a gun.  The drug dealing “victim” identified the defendant and his friend as the men who attacked him.

Apparently realizing the strength of the Commonwealth’s case, the defendant decided to plead guilty to the charges.  In district court, there is a specific protocol that must be followed when a defendant wants to plead out a case.  A “change of tender” form is completed by the prosecutor and the defense attorney.  Each attorney writes down a sentencing recommendation and the form is submitted to a judge.  The judge then reviews the form, listens to the sentencing argument of the lawyers, and informs the defendant what sentence he or she would impose.  In district court, every plea is a “defendant-capped plea,” which means if the judge wants to impose a sentence that is harsher than the defendant’s recommendation, the defendant can withdraw his tender of plea and go to trial.

Strangely, the process to plead out a case in superior court is more confusing.  The Rules of Criminal Procedure provide that a superior court plea is a “Commonwealth-capped plea,” which means the defendant can only withdraw his tender of plea if the judge exceeds the Commonwealth’s recommendation (which is usually harsher than the defendant’s recommendation).  As a practical matter, a majority of superior court judges will tell the attorneys beforehand what sentence he or she will impose so the defendant does not plead guilty before knowing the extent of his punishment.  Some defense attorneys, including Chris Spring, will not allow a client to plead guilty without knowing the judge’s proposed sentence.  As a result, the minority of superior court judges who refuse to commit to a sentence prior to a plea hearing contribute to a backlog of criminal cases because fewer defense attorneys are willing to resolve cases in their courtrooms.

In this case, the defendant expressed a willingness to plead guilty and a superior court judge proposed a sentence of 6-9 years in state prison.  However, the case was continued and a second superior court judge ended up sentencing the defendant.  The second judge went through a ridiculous process where he first announced a “conditional sentence” of five years in prison.  The conditional sentence was completely meaningless, as the judge said he reserved the right to change the sentence on a later date after receiving more information about the case.  On the later date, the judge oversaw a process that would be more appropriate for a game show than a criminal courtroom.  The prosecutor was supposed to write down his sentencing recommendation on a piece of paper, seal the paper in an envelope, and submit the envelope to the judge.  The judge, without knowing the prosecutor’s recommendation, would then announce his sentence (which might be different than the conditional sentence).  Then, the judge would peek inside the prosecutor’s envelope to discover the Commonwealth’s recommendation.  If the judge’s second (non-conditional) sentence exceeded the Commonwealth’s secret recommendation, the judge would either reduce his sentence so as to not exceed the Commonwealth’s recommendation or allow the defendant to withdraw his offer to plead guilty.  Essentially, the judge was enacting a hybrid Commonwealth-capped plea procedure with an unnecessary air of mystery and absurd dose of uncertainly.  In this case, after announcing a conditional sentence of five years in prison, the judge changed his mind and doubled the sentence to 10 years in prison.  Because the Commonwealth’s secret recommendation was 10-15 years in state prison, the defendant was forced to accept the judge’s second sentence.

The defendant appealed and argued that as a result of the circus that surrounded his guilty plea proceedings, his plea was not voluntary.  The Appeals Court rejected his argument and concluded that the two judges did not violate the Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the defendant accordingly is not entitled to withdraw his plea.  The Court pointed out that the second judge’s sentence did not exceed the Commonwealth’s sentencing recommendation, and so the defendant had not suffered any harm.  The Court also ruled that the sentencing proposal by the first judge did not create a binding contract with the defendant.

Whether the Rules of Criminal Procedure were violated or not, what happened in this case is an embarrassment and fails to promote confidence in the judicial system.  The second judge’s announcement of a “conditional sentence” was a completely meaningless gesture, which did nothing other than create confusion.  The judge’s invented procedure of requiring the Commonwealth to submit a secret sentencing recommendation was equally unhelpful, as it did nothing other than add unnecessary drama to what was already a dramatic and solemn judicial proceeding.  The judicial system has an interest in encouraging defendants to take responsibility for their crimes.  It is fundamentally unfair to ask defendants to plead guilty without telling them what their punishment will be (or, as in this case, “conditionally” telling them they will receive a five-year sentence, only to double it at a subsequent proceeding).  The history of this case is a disgrace to the superior court.