Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, June 30, 2017


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California Supreme Court Declares:

Courts of Appeal Have Strayed From 1978 S.C. Holding

Majority Says It Is Implicit in Every Plea Bargain That the Judge Approving the Deal Will Impose the Sentence; Dissent Says This Distorts Earlier Opinion


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court declared yesterday that it meant what it said in 1978 in holding in People v. Arbuckle that a defendant has a right to be sentenced by the judge who accepted a plea bargain, and courts of appeal have erred in engrafting exceptions on the rule.

“In so doing,” Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the 4-3 majority, “the courts went astray.”

Seven Court of Appeal opinions were disapproved, and Werdegar issued a reminder that lower appellate courts are obliged to follow high court precedents.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye penned the dissent.

The decision clarified the high court’s decision in Arbuckle in which Justice Stanley Mosk said, in the lead opinion:

“[W]henever a judge accepts a plea bargain and retains sentencing discretion under the agreement, an implied term of the bargain is that sentence will be imposed by that judge. Because of the range of dispositions available to a sentencing judge, the propensity in sentencing demonstrated by a particular judge is an inherently significant factor in the defendant’s decision to enter a guilty plea….

“Because the defendant has been denied that aspect of his plea bargain, the sentence imposed by another judge cannot be allowed to stand.”

Two members of the court signed his opinion; four of them each wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion, with two agreeing with Mosk that the defendant was denied an aspect of the plea bargain. Two others insisted that it would be improper to promise a defendant that a particular judge would impose a sentence.

In 1983, the court in In re Mark L. extended the rule in Arbuckle to juvenile cases.

Juvenile Offender

The case before the Supreme Court yesterday involved the sentencing of a youthful offender, identified as “K.R.,” for violating the terms of his probation. He had been found in 2013 to have committed robbery, the making of criminal threats, and brandishing a weapon.

At a May 28, 2015 settlement conference, a plea bargain was approved by retired Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jack Sapunor, sitting on assignment. Under the accord, the youth admitted two violations of probation—brandishing a weapon and staying away from home overnight without parental permission—and was be incarcerated for 54 days in juvenile hall.

It was Judge James P. Arguelles who was on the bench at the minor’s subsequent dispositional hearing, and the judge disclaimed any cap having been set by a plea bargain on a term of incarceration. After further proceedings, Arguelles issued a written ruling on July 6, 2015, rejecting the contention that an implied term of the plea bargain was that the disposition be handled by Sapunor.

Robie’s Opinion

Yesterday’s opinion reverses the Dec. 30, 2015 decision of the Third District Court of Appeal. Justice Ronald B. Robie wrote for that court in saying:

“[W]e believe the question for us to answer in this case is whether the record shows that it was an express or implied term of the minor’s plea agreement that Judge Sapunor would preside over his disposition hearing on his admission of the two probation violations, such that it can be said that the minor entered into the plea agreement ‘in expectation of and in reliance upon’ disposition being imposed by Judge Sapunor….Such circumstances are not shown in the record.”

Robie suggested:

“Perhaps the best way of fostering certainty and settled expectations in light of these concerns would be to encourage the use of an Arbuckle request. That is, a defendant considering entering into a plea agreement who decides that he or she wants to be sentenced by the same judge to whom the plea agreement is being presented for approval can request that the prosecution agree to, and that the court approve, the inclusion of an Arbuckle right in the agreement.”

Werdegar Disagrees

The Office of Attorney General urged that the high court approve Robie’s approach of putting the burden on the defendant to request same-judge sentencing. That, Werdegar responded, “would turn Arbuckle on its head.”

She wrote:

“Under the law as proposed by the People, the Arbuckle rule will have morphed from one in which courts should assume the same judge will be the sentencer unless the prosecution can show otherwise, to one in which courts will find the same judge will be the sentencer only if the defendant can show that the parties so intended. Were we to accept the People’s argument, instead of opting out with an Arbuckle waiver, pleading defendants (and juveniles) would have to affirmatively opt in by providing an Arbuckle invocation. Considerations of stare decisis aside, the People have provided no persuasive reason to abandon the original meaning of Arbuckle.

Wording of Arbuckle

Mosk wrote in Arbuckle that the judge who took the plea bargain, where that judge “retains sentencing discretion,” should perform the sentencing. The Office of Attorney General argued that Sapunor did not do so.

Werdegar dismissed the contention by saying:

“As a rule, trial courts accepting a plea always retain discretion over sentencing. Should the court later decide not to impose the negotiated sentence, the court can withdraw its prior approval of the bargain and allow the pleading defendant (or juvenile) to withdraw his or her plea.”

She added that Sapunor was set to impose sentence on the spot, but the probation officer brought up the matter of arranging for air flights so the offender could return to his family, now living in Las Vegas, and the matter was put off for a week.

Werdegar insisted that Arbuckle created a “categorical presumption” that the judge who approves a plea bargain will do the sentencing and that courts of appeal have erred in adopting “the notion that the implied term of the plea is somehow dependent on a defendant’s pointing to evidence in the record of his or her expectation regarding the identity of the sentencing judge.”

Chief Justice’s Dissent

Cantil-Sakauye protested, in her dissent:

“The majority today purports to return California law to the original rule intended by the majority of this court in People v. Arbuckle….In so doing, the majority, in my view, misrepresents the Arbuckle opinion as having a plain meaning, ignores more than 25 years of established appellate court understanding of the decision, places our law out of step with every other jurisdiction to have considered the issue, and injects opportunities for gamesmanship and practical difficulties into our system of plea bargaining.”

The chief justice went on to say:

“[I]if Arbuckle had actually identified a term universally implied in plea bargaining—that parties always intend the judge who accepts the plea bargain to be the judge who imposes sentence—one would expect to find common recognition of this principle by other courts in other jurisdictions. In fact, however, no other state or federal jurisdiction before or after Arbuckle has ever held that such an implied term exists in all plea bargaining situations….That’s right; not one.”

Looking at administrative difficulties, the chief justice said:

“[G]iven that a same-judge term will hereafter always be implied in negotiated pleas, without reference to the record, and that some defendants may strategically decline to enter an Arbuckle waiver, the routine rotation of assignments for judges in multi-judge courts, perhaps sitting in different locations, may be hampered. The use of visiting and temporarily assigned judges, vital in many courts with judicial vacancies or case overloads, will be more difficult. Other practical problems for the administration of our system of plea bargaining may be posed. Although I accept that such difficulties must be accommodated when a same-judge term is part of the parties’ actual plea bargain, the burden on our courts under the majority’s opinion today is unjustified by any actual expectation of the defendant, prosecutor, or trial judge.”

Prospect of ‘Gamesmanship’

She said the case before the court demonstrates how a strict interpretation of Arbuckle can lead to “gamesmanship.” Cantil-Sakauye pointed out that Department 97 of the Sacramento Superior Court was where Arguelles—who handled K.R.’s delinquency proceeding and previous proceedings regarding violations of probation—normally sits.

Nobody represented that Sapunor (a retired judge, sitting on assignment, whom she referred to as a “visiting” judge) would be there the next week, the chief justice pointed out.

“In sum, there is simply nothing in the record to support the claim that K.R.’s admissions were given in expectation of and reliance upon disposition being imposed by Judge Sapunor the following week.” She wrote. “By the majority’s decision, K.R. is, therefore, reaping the benefit of a plea term that was not part of his plea deal.”

The case is K.R. v. Superior Court, 17 S.O.S. 3284.


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