Brown v. State, Misc. No. 30

CourtMaryland Court of Special Appeals
Writing for the CourtOpinion by McDonald, J.
PartiesRANDY MORQUELL BROWN GIANPAOLO BOTTINI KITRELL B. WILSON v. STATE OF MARYLAND
Docket NumberMisc. No. 30
Decision Date24 August 2020

RANDY MORQUELL BROWN GIANPAOLO BOTTINI KITRELL B. WILSON
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

Misc. No. 30

COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND

Argument: September 10, 2019
September Term, 2018
August 24, 2020


Criminal Law - Mandatory Minimum Sentences - Criminal Procedure - Plea Agreements - Binding Plea Agreement. Under Maryland Code, Criminal Law Article ("CR"), §5-609.1, a circuit court has discretion to decide whether or not to modify a mandatory minimum sentence previously imposed under a statute that required such a sentence for repeat drug offenders. A circuit court has such discretion even if the mandatory minimum sentence was imposed as a result of a guilty plea pursuant to a binding plea agreement under Maryland Rule 4-243(c) that was approved by the court and the State does not consent to the proposed modification.

Criminal Law - Mandatory Minimum Sentences - Criminal Procedure - Plea Agreements - Waiver of Right to Seek Modification of Sentence. Under CR §5-609.1, a circuit court has discretion to decide whether or not to modify a mandatory minimum sentence previously imposed under a statute that required such a sentence for repeat drug offenders. A circuit court has such discretion even if the mandatory minimum sentence was imposed as a result of guilty plea pursuant to a binding plea agreement under Maryland Rule 4-243(c) that was approved by the court and the defendant waived the right to seek modification of the sentence as part of that plea agreement.

Criminal Law - Mandatory Minimum Sentences - Criminal Procedure - Motion to Modify Sentence. In exercising its discretion to decide a motion under CR §5-609.1, a circuit court should ordinarily hold a hearing in order to hear argument and to resolve any disputed material facts related to the factors under that statute. Under Maryland Rule 4-345, the court must hold a hearing before it grants a motion to modify a mandatory minimum sentence. However, there is no requirement in the statute or rule that a circuit court hold a hearing when it denies a motion to modify a sentence.

Criminal Law - Mandatory Minimum Sentences - Criminal Procedure - Motion to Modify Sentence - Appeals. An appellate court has jurisdiction of an appeal of an order denying a motion under CR §5-609.1 because that statute shifts the burden of persuasion to the State with the result that a decision on that motion is similar to a re-sentencing that results in a final judgment. The decision on such a motion is committed to the discretion of the circuit court and the standard of review is abuse of discretion, which may include a legal error, such as the circuit court failing to recognize or exercise its discretion.

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Circuit Court for Charles County
Case No. 08-K-12-000739
Circuit Court for Montgomery County
Case No. 120636C 120416C

Barbera, C.J., McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Booth Adkins, Sally D. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by McDonald, J.

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The Court of Special Appeals has certified to us, and we have agreed to answer, four questions of law concerning the application of the Justice Reinvestment Act ("JRA").1 Among other things, the JRA eliminated mandatory minimum sentences of imprisonment without the possibility of parole required by existing law for defendants who were convicted of certain drug offenses and who were repeat offenders. The JRA further provided that a defendant who had received a mandatory minimum sentence prior to the elimination of such sentences could ask the court to reduce that sentence and provided some criteria for a court to decide whether to do so - a provision that has been codified in Maryland Code, Criminal Law Article ("CR"), §5-609.1.

A number of inmates currently serving mandatory minimum sentences have invoked CR §5-609.1 and filed motions to modify or reduce their sentences. Questions have arisen, however, as to the application of this provision when the mandatory minimum sentence relates to a conviction based on a court-approved plea agreement under which the prosecution, the defendant, and the court agreed that the mandatory minimum sentence would be imposed and, in particular, when the defendant waived the right to seek modification of that sentence as part of the plea agreement. In addition, procedural questions have arisen as to whether the defendant has a right to a hearing on such a motion and whether a denial of the motion is appealable.

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Pursuant to Maryland Rule 8-304, the Court of Special Appeals has certified four questions of law to us concerning CR §5-609.1 that pertain to pending appeals in that court. We granted a writ of certiorari related to these three cases to respond to those questions.

For the reasons set forth below, we answer the certified questions as follows:

(1) Under CR §5-609.1, a court may modify a mandatory minimum sentence that was imposed prior to the effective date of the JRA following a guilty plea pursuant to a binding plea agreement, even if the State does not consent to the modification. The decision whether to modify a mandatory minimum sentence is a matter within the sentencing court's discretion, upon consideration of the factors in CR §5-609.1(b).

(2) Under CR §5-609.1, a court may modify a mandatory minimum sentence, even if that sentence was imposed prior to the effective date of the JRA following a guilty plea pursuant to binding a plea agreement in which the defendant waived the right to seek modification of the sentence. The decision whether to modify a mandatory minimum sentence is a matter within the sentencing court's discretion, upon consideration of the factors in CR §5-609.1(b).

(3) In considering the factors set forth in CR §5-609.1(b) and exercising its discretion to decide whether to modify a mandatory minimum sentence pursuant to that statute, a court should, in most circumstances, conduct a hearing to receive evidence when such evidence will aid the exercise of the court's discretion and to hear argument from the parties concerning the application of the factors in CR §5-609.1(b). Under Maryland Rule 4-345, the court must hold a hearing before it grants a motion. There is no absolute requirement in the statute or rule to hold a hearing when the court denies a motion.

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(4) An appellate court has jurisdiction of an appeal of an order denying a motion under CR §5-609.1 because that statute shifts the burden of persuasion to the State with the result that a decision on that motion is similar to a re-sentencing that results in a final judgment. The decision on such a motion is committed to the discretion of the circuit court and the standard of review is abuse of discretion, which may include a legal error, such as the circuit court failing to recognize or exercise its discretion.

I
Background

The certified questions concern who is eligible under CR §5-609.1 to seek reduction of a mandatory minimum sentence, whether one has a right to a hearing on such a motion, and whether one may appeal an adverse decision in the circuit court. To provide context to our answers, we briefly outline the legal landscape under which the defendants in these cases were originally sentenced, describe the relevant provision of the JRA, and summarize the pertinent procedural events in each of these cases.

A. Legal Landscape When the Defendants Were Convicted and Sentenced

1. Imposition and Modification of Sentence

As a general rule, a "sentencing judge is vested with virtually boundless discretion" in devising an appropriate sentence.2 Cruz-Quintanilla v. State, 455 Md. 35, 40 (2017).

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Such broad latitude allows for consideration of both the facts of the particular offense and of the defendant's "reputation, prior offenses, health, habits, mental and moral propensities, and social background." Id. This "permits the sentencing judge to individualize the sentence to fit the offender and not merely the crime." Id. at 40-41 (internal quotations omitted). Sentencing in this manner is perceived as the best way to achieve the goals of the criminal justice system - "punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation." Johnson v. State, 274 Md. 536, 540-42 (1975).

After imposing a sentence, the judge has discretion to modify that sentence subject to certain conditions. In particular, Maryland Rule 4-345(e) generally allows the court to modify a sentence upon a timely motion by the defendant.3 The defendant must file the motion within 90 days of sentencing. Maryland Rule 4-345(e)(1). Once the motion has been filed, the sentencing judge may act on it immediately or may defer action on the motion for up to five years after the imposition of the original sentence. Id. In acting on the motion, the judge may not increase the sentence. Id. While the court may deny a motion under Rule 4-345(e) without holding a hearing, it may not grant a motion to modify

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a sentence without first providing notice and an opportunity to be heard to any victims of the offense and holding a hearing on the motion. Maryland Rule 4-345(e)(2)-(3), (f).

2. Plea Agreements that Specify a Sentence and Limit its Modification

Most criminal cases are resolved as a result of a plea agreement between the State and the defendant. Indeed, more than nine out of every 10 criminal convictions results from a guilty plea. Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 170 (2012) (noting that 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas). And the vast majority of guilty pleas are the product of a plea agreement between the prosecution and the defendant. See Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, 2019 Annual Report (2020) at 44 (during fiscal year 2019, 95.1% of criminal convictions were the result of guilty pleas, with plea agreements involved in 83.9% of those convictions).

Under a typical plea agreement, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or more charges and the State agrees to dismiss, or to refrain from bringing, other charges against the defendant. A plea agreement may also contain other terms....

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