Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Trial Court Cannot Reconsider Sentence When Defendant Does Not Comply with Plea Agreement

After sentencing, a trial court has no legal authority to set aside the conviction and sentence of a defendant who made a plea deal and then reneged on it, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

“If the trial court is concerned with the defendant abiding by the terms of the plea agreement, the solution is to postpone sentencing until after the defendant has performed the desired act,” Justice William O’Neill wrote in the court’s majority opinion. 

The 5-2 decision returns the case to the trial court to resentence a Cincinnati man based on the original order under the plea agreement.

In 2009, Kareem Gilbert was indicted in Hamilton County on several charges, including aggravated murder. As part of an agreement to dismiss some charges and lessen others, Gilbert agreed to testify against his father in a murder case. On the date Gilbert entered the plea in 2010, the court sentenced him to the agreed-on 18 years in prison.

One year later, the state asked the trial court to vacate Gilbert’s sentence because he did not cooperate with the prosecution in his father’s case. The court withdrew the original deal, set aside the sentence, and sentenced him to 18 years to life in prison, based on a second plea agreement.

Gilbert appealed, and the First District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision. The state filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court.

The state argued that a plea agreement is a contract and that a court must revisit the plea if the contract is broken.

“While this may appear to be an equitable outcome, it simply is not supported by the law,” Justice O’Neill reasoned. “It would require that a trial court have jurisdiction to reconsider its own valid final judgment.”

Justice O’Neill explained that the trial court’s 2010 judgment was a valid final order, based on four requirements set out in a procedural rule for criminal cases.

“Once a final judgment has been issued pursuant to Crim.R. 32, the trial court’s jurisdiction ends,” he continued. “While this court does not dispute the fact that contract principles generally apply to the interpretation and enforcement of plea agreements, those principles are not so flexible to permit  jurisdiction to be maintained in perpetuity to enforce such agreements.”

“[O]nce a defendant has been sentenced by a trial court, that court does not have jurisdiction to entertain a motion by the state to vacate the defendant’s guilty plea and sentence based upon the defendant’s alleged violation of a plea agreement,” he concluded. “As every teacher knows, you reward the student after the desired behavior occurs, not before. Much like teaching, plea negotiations are driven by the fact that the incentive to do the act in question disappears once the reward has been given.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Judith L. French joined the majority opinion. Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy.

Justice O’Donnell stated his view that Gilbert had perpetrated a fraud on the court when negotiating his first plea agreement. The justice noted that Gilbert’s attorney admitted that Gilbert had lied to the state and the police officers to get a better deal.

Justice O’Donnell recognized that the finality of a court’s judgment “cannot overshadow [the court’s] duty to preserve the integrity of the judicial system and ‘crush the fruits of fraud,’” citing a 1966 Ohio Supreme Court ruling.

He concluded: “I would reverse the judgment of the court of appeals because a court has inherent authority to reconsider its judgment to protect the integrity of the judicial system when a defendant perpetrates a fraud upon it.”

2013-0382. State v. Gilbert, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4562.

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