Can the District Attorney Withdraw a Plea Agreement If the Judge Imposes a Lighter Sentence?
Most Georgia criminal cases are resolved through a negotiated plea agreement between the defendant and the district attorney’s office. A typical agreement involves the defendant agreeing to enter a plea of guilty or no-contest to a reduced charge in exchange for a joint sentencing recommendation. The final agreement is then submitted to the trial court for its approval.
Now, it is important to understand that the judge is not legally bound to accept any plea agreement. For instance, the judge may decide the sentencing recommendation is too lenient and impose a harsher sentence. In that scenario, the defendant has the right to withdraw from the plea agreement and take their chances at trial.
But what about the opposite situation, i.e., the judge decides to impose a lighter sentence than the recommendation? Can the district attorney withdraw from the plea agreement? In a 2016 decision, State v. Kelly the Georgia Supreme Court held that a trial judge “does not have the authority to accept a guilty plea to an uncharged, lesser included offense without the consent of the State.” So if the judge announces their intent to impose a lighter sentence under the plea agreement, the district attorney has the right to object, withdraw its consent from the plea bargain, and demand a trial.
Court of Appeals Declines to Intervene After Trial Court Imposes Lighter Manslaughter Sentence
A more recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, State v. Scott, further demonstrates that the state cannot later appeal a lighter sentence if the district attorney fails to make a timely objection before the trial court. In this case, the state charged the defendant with murder and several other weapons and drug charges. The district attorney and the defendant negotiated a plea agreement. As relevant here, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter as opposed to murder, and two other charges. In exchange, the district attorney recommended a 40-year prison sentence, of which the defendant would have to serve at least 25 years.
After considering the plea agreement, the trial court announced it would impose a lighter sentence of 20 years with 15 to serve. The district attorney “requested” the judge honor the original agreement but the record did not indicate any formal objection. The judge then proceeded to impose the lighter sentence.
The state then appealed the judge’s decision. The Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal, holding the state failed to properly invoke the court’s jurisdiction. The appellate court noted the state only has a limited right in criminal cases to appeal an order that is “void” under Georgia law. This was not such a case. One judge on the Court of Appeals dissent, however, because in their view the trial court’s order was void under the Supreme Court’s Kelly decision.
Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today
If you are facing criminal charges in connection with the death of another person, an experienced Georgia manslaughter lawyer can advise you of your rights, including your right to seek a negotiated plea bargain with the state. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.