As any fan of television crime dramas knows, plea bargains are a frequent part of the criminal justice process. They offer a means to get further cooperation from reluctant defendants. But they don’t always work, as we saw in a case involving a man named Kareem Gilbert.
On March 12, 2009, Gilbert was indicted on two counts of aggravated murder with firearm specifications (meaning he used a firearm in the commission of his crimes), two counts of having weapons while under disability (meaning that he was prohibited from owning weapons), and one count of intimidation of a witness.
On May 18, 2010, Gilbert entered into a plea agreement whereby he would plead guilty to one count each of manslaughter with a firearm specification, having weapons while under disability, and intimidation of a witness, and he would be sentenced to 18 years in prison. In exchange, Gilbert agreed to cooperate with the state and testify in a murder prosecution against his father, Ruben Jordan. Gilbert was sentenced the same day to 18 years’ imprisonment.
Exactly one year later, the state asked the trial court to vacate Gilbert’s plea because he had failed to cooperate with the state in its prosecution of Jordan. The trial court granted the request, withdrew the original plea agreement, and vacated the sentence.
Gilbert then entered into a second plea agreement and was sentenced to imprisonment for 18 years to life, but he subsequently filed an appeal. The court of appeals ordered briefing on this issue: Did the trial court have authority to grant the state’s motion to vacate Gilbert’s original plea, and then reconsider its own judgment and resentence Gilbert?
The court of appeals ultimately reversed the trial court’s decision, specifically holding that the trial court did not have the authority to reconsider its final judgment after the defendant had been sentenced. According to the court of appeals, the fact that Gilbert had breached the plea agreement was irrelevant. Once Gilbert was sentenced, a final order existed, and there was no authority for the trial court to revisit its judgment even though the plea agreement had been breached.
The state then filed a motion to bring the case before us – the Ohio Supreme Court. The question before us was whether a trial court can revisit its earlier acceptance of a plea agreement and final judgment when a defendant fails to abide by the terms of that plea agreement.
The state argued that the plea agreement is a contract between the state and the defendant and that a breach of that contract requires a court to revisit the original plea and treat it as though the agreement had never been made. As Justice William M. O’Neill noted in writing our majority opinion, “While this may appear to be an equitable outcome, it simply is not supported by the law. It would require that a trial court have jurisdiction to reconsider its own valid final judgment.”
The Criminal Rules that govern the trial process list the requirements for a valid final judgment in a criminal case. Specifically, one of those rules provides that a judgment must set forth four elements: the fact of the conviction, the sentence, the judge’s signature, and the time stamp indication that the clerk of the court entered the judgment in the journal.
In this case, the judgment of the trial court finding Gilbert guilty and sentencing him to 18 years satisfied each of those four requirements. It was, therefore, a valid final order.
Additionally, a trial court is generally not empowered to modify a criminal sentence by reconsidering its own final judgment. Over the years, our court has been committed to the principle that finality creates “certainty in the law and public confidence in the system’s ability to resolve disputes.”
Once a final judgment has been issued in accordance with the Criminal Rules, the trial court’s jurisdiction ends. While our 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 as to permit jurisdiction to be maintained in perpetuity to enforce such agreements.”
The state relied on numerous prior cases to support its argument that the trial court retains jurisdiction when a defendant breaches a plea agreement. But in each of those cases, the defendant had not been sentenced at the time the trial court considered whether the plea agreement had been breached.
Thus, each of those cases was different from Gilbert’s because the trial court’s jurisdiction was not an issue. Instead, in each of those cases, the state followed the common practice of ensuring that the defendant had complied with the plea agreement prior to imposing the sentence and entering a final judgment.
“Should a defendant experience a change of heart and renege on a plea agreement before a sentence has been imposed,” Justice O’Neill wrote, “the trial court is still able to ensure that the defendant does not receive anything that he or she is not entitled to receive regarding the dismissal of any charges or a lesser sentence. There is no justification to create an exception from this standard procedure.”
We therefore concluded – by a five-to-two vote – that once 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. Our vote affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.
Justice O’Neill concluded by saying that 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.
“As every teacher knows,” Justice O’Neill wrote, “you reward the student after the desired behavior, 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.”
Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.