Warnken, LLC Attorneys at Law, Attorneys & Lawyers, Pikesville, MD

Baines v. State – Plea Agreements and Sentencing Guidelines

Baines v. State, 416 Md. 604 (October 28, 2010).

This appeal concerns whether a judge who agrees to be bound to the terms of a plea agreement that calls for a sentence “within the guidelines” may impose a “split sentence” that exceeds the guidelines and suspends all but the part of the sentence that falls within the guidelines.

The State and Defendant negotiated a plea bargain that called for him to plead guilty to two counts of armed robbery and to be sentenced “within the guidelines.” The guidelines range for those offenses was seven to thirteen years. The trial court sentenced the Defendant to 20 years, suspend all but 7 on the first count and 20 years, suspend all but 6 on the second count.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the court breached the plea agreement because the total sentence, including the part of the sentence that was suspended, exceeded the guidelines. The CSA affirmed the judgment of the trial court in an unreported opinion, finding that the Defendant understood that the trial court could impose a sentence that exceeded the sentencing guidelines, so long as the un-suspended part of the sentence did not exceed the guidelines, quoting the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 12.1 p. 42 (2005), which states in part “Suspended time is not considered in determining whether the sentence falls within the recommended guidelines range.

The COA reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court, finding that the Defendant is entitled to specific performance of his plea agreement. Consistent with the rule announced in Cuffley, the COA found that the sentence was in breach of the plea agreement, because the record of the plea proceeding reflects that the Defendant reasonably understood that the court would not impose a total sentence exceeding thirteen years, including both non-suspended and suspended time.

Relying on its previous decision in Cuffley, the COA states that the declarations in the Guidelines Manual that suspended time is not considered in determining whether a sentence falls within the guidelines range is irrelevant. All that is relevant, in the eyes of the COA, “for purposes of identifying the sentencing term of the plea agreement, is what was stated on the record at the time of the plea concerning that term of the agreement and what a reasonable lay person in the Defendant’s position would understand, based on what was stated, the agreed-upon sentence to be.”

The COA noted that the CSA considered extrinsic evidence that the Defendant had been advised or otherwise aware of the fact that the plea agreement referred only to an un-suspended portion of his sentence. However, the COA went on to state that “Cuffley makes clear that none of that extrinsic evidence of Petitioner’s actual understanding of the plea agreement is relevant to the determination of the plea agreement’s terms. The determination…is measured by what a reasonable lay person in Petitioner’s position at the time of the plea would have understood the agreement to be.”

The COA found that the record of the proceeding discloses only that defense counsel advised the court that “sentencing will be within the Guidelines.” The court then confirmed that it was being asked “just to commit myself within the Guidelines.” Defense counsel responded “yes.” The prosecutor said nothing to elaborate on the meaning of the phrase “sentencing within the Guidelines.” Given this, the COA determined that a lay person in the Defendant’s position understood this to mean that he could not receive a sentence greater than 13 years, the upper limit of the sentencing guideline for his offense. The COA added “even assuming for the sake of argument that the sentencing term was ambiguous (on these facts, we do not believe it was), the ambiguity must be resolved in Petitioner’s favor.