State v. Knight

Decision Date06 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. COA20-403,COA20-403
Citation857 S.E.2d 728
Parties STATE of North Carolina v. Edward Lynn KNIGHT, Defendant.
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Brenda Rivera, for the State.

Appellate Defendant Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender James R. Grant, for the Defendant.

JACKSON, Judge.

¶ 1 Edward Lynn Knight ("Defendant") argues that the trial court erred in failing to sentence him in accordance with the terms of his plea agreement. We conclude that the trial court erred in determining that Defendant had breached the agreement, and therefore vacate its judgment and remand the case for resentencing.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 2 On 4 February 2019, Defendant was indicted by a grand jury in Johnston County for assault by strangulation, second-degree kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon. The matter came on for hearing before the Honorable Thomas H. Lock in Johnston County Superior Court on 5 July 2019. The State offered Defendant one consolidated judgment in exchange for his plea of guilty to these three charges. Defendant asked if he could enter his guilty pleas on that date but postpone sentencing for a few months, so that he could make preparations before surrendering for an active prison term. The prosecutor agreed, without consulting with the victim of Defendant's crimes. Defendant then pleaded guilty to all three offenses in exchange for the State agreeing to consolidate the three charges for judgment purposes and dismiss other related charges.

¶ 3 In accepting Defendant's plea arrangement, Judge Lock informed Defendant that "[s]entencing will be continued until the September 3rd, 2019, session of this court. That is roughly two months. At that time, if you appear, the cases will be consolidated into one judgment for the purposes of sentencing." The plea agreement also provided that "[s]entencing will be continued to September 3, 2019. If Defendant fails to report for sentencing, this arrangement will no longer be binding[,] and the court may sentence in its discretion."

¶ 4 Consistent with the terms of the plea arrangement, Defendant appeared for sentencing on Tuesday, 3 September 2019. When the case was called on the calendar, the sentencing hearing was continued to Friday, 6 September 2019. Later that same day, however, the prosecutor informed Defendant's attorney that sentencing would instead take place the very next day, on Wednesday, 4 September 2019 at 10:30 a.m. Defendant's attorney stated in open court that he had notified Defendant of the change.

¶ 5 The next day, Defendant did not appear at 10:30 a.m. The prosecutor continued the sentencing hearing, and the trial court issued a warrant for Defendant's arrest. An hour and fifteen minutes later, at 11:45 a.m., Defendant appeared, indicating that he was under the impression that sentencing was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Defendant was taken into custody.

¶ 6 On 11 October 2019, Defendant's sentencing hearing was held before the Honorable Keith O. Gregory in Johnston County Superior Court. During the hearing, Defendant's attorney attempted to explain Defendant's late arrival to the 4 September 2019 sentencing hearing—emphasizing that although Defendant had arrived late, his attorney was still at the court in front of the sentencing judge. Defendant's attorney also emphasized that Defendant had timely appeared on 3 September 2019 for sentencing, as required by the plea agreement. Defendant's attorney explained that he had not sought to strike the warrant issued for Defendant's failure to appear on 4 September because Defendant had come to court prepared to be taken into custody.

¶ 7 Judge Gregory, in response to Defendant's attorney, indicated that he "[didn't] believe that it was forgotten. I believe that [Defendant] just didn't come on time. That's what I believe."

¶ 8 The prosecutor argued that Defendant had violated the terms of the plea agreement by not appearing at the 4 September 2019 sentencing hearing on time and thus, the trial court was permitted to sentence Defendant in its discretion. The prosecutor told the court that he had promised the victim, "[w]ell [Defendant] didn't show up, so the sentencing is going to be in the discretion of the court."

¶ 9 The prosecutor then called the victim as a witness. She testified that she was upset by the two-month delay of Defendant's sentencing, which the prosecutor had agreed to without her consent. Adding to her frustration, she had missed work to appear at Defendant's scheduled hearing on 4 September and had left the courthouse by the time he appeared late. That same day, she talked with other family members who said Defendant had second thoughts about appearing in court.

¶ 10 After hearing from the victim, the State, and counsel for Defendant, the trial court found Defendant to be in breach of the plea agreement and indicated that the court would sentence Defendant in its discretion. The trial court then imposed consecutive sentences for each charge: ten to 21 months for assault by strangulation, 33 to 52 months for second-degree kidnapping, and 33 to 52 months for assault with a deadly weapon. Defendant gave oral notice of appeal. Defendant subsequently filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with our Court requesting appellate review under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444(e) and N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-32(c), should the court conclude that his arguments are not within the scope of his direct appeal.

II. Analysis

¶ 11 Defendant contends that the trial court erred in failing to sentence him in accordance with the plea agreement. We agree.

A. Petition for Writ of Certiorari

¶ 12 As noted above, Defendant filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari on 17 July 2020 seeking review of the trial court's judgment. The General Statutes provide that a defendant "is not entitled to appellate review as a matter of right when he has entered a plea of guilty." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444(e) (2019). However, there are some exceptions. Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444,

(a2) A defendant who has entered a plea of guilty or no contest to a felony or misdemeanor in superior court is entitled to appeal as a matter of right the issue of whether the sentence imposed:
(1) Results from an incorrect finding of the defendant's prior record level under G.S. 15A-1340.14 or the defendant's prior conviction level under G.S. 15A-1340.21 ;
(2) Contains a type of sentence disposition that is not authorized by G.S. 15A-1340.17 or G.S. 15A-1340.23 for the defendant's class of offense and prior record or conviction level; or
(3) Contains a term of imprisonment that is for a duration not authorized by G.S. 15A-1340.17 or G.S. 15A-1340.23 for the defendant's class of offense and prior record or conviction level.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444(a2)(1)-(3) (2019).

¶ 13 The question presented by Defendant's appeal is whether the trial court erred by failing to adhere to the terms of the plea agreement. "In effect, the State [has] rescind[ed] a plea agreement which the State agreed to and was accepted by the court." State v. Isom , 119 N.C. App. 225, 227-28, 458 S.E.2d 420, 421-22 (1995). Because this issue does not clearly fall within the exceptions to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444(e), Defendant requests that we issue a writ of certiorari to review it. Because the unilateral withdrawal of a plea agreement by the State involves a possible due process violation, see Santobello v. New York , 404 U.S. 257, 267, 92 S.Ct. 495, 30 L.Ed.2d 427 (1971), we exercise our broad discretion, pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-32(c), and hereby allow Defendant's petition for a writ of certiorari.

B. Standard of Review

¶ 14 In general, "[a] judgment will not be disturbed because of sentencing procedures unless there is a showing of abuse of discretion, procedural conduct prejudicial to defendant, circumstances which manifest inherent unfairness and injustice, or conduct which offends the public sense of fair play." State v. Pope , 257 N.C. 326, 335, 126 S.E.2d 126, 133 (1962). We review de novo the issue of whether a plea agreement has been breached and whether the trial court has erred in entering a judgment inconsistent with the terms of a plea agreement. See State v. Rodriguez , 111 N.C. App. 141, 147, 431 S.E.2d 788, 791 (1993).

C. Plea Agreement

¶ 15 Although plea agreements "arise[ ] in the context of a criminal proceeding, it remains in essence a contract" and should be analyzed based on principles of contract law." State v. Blackwell , 135 N.C. App. 729, 731, 522 S.E.2d 313, 315 (1999), remanded on other ground , 353 N.C. 259, 538 S.E.2d 929 (2000) ; State v. Lacey , 175 N.C. App. 370, 377, 623 S.E.2d 351, 356 (2006). Our courts, however, have recognized that plea agreements are "markedly different from an ordinary commercial contract[,]" because the defendant waives many of his constitutional rights by pleading guilty. Blackwell , 135 N.C. App. at 731, 522 S.E.2d at 315. Thus, the plea bargain "phase of the process of criminal justice, and the adjudicative element inherent in accepting a plea of guilty, must be attended by safeguards to insure the defendant [receives] what is reasonably due in the circumstances." Santobello , 404 U.S. at 262, 92 S.Ct. at 498-99.

¶ 16 "If the parties have agreed upon a plea arrangement pursuant to G.S. 14A-1021 in which the prosecutor has agreed to recommend a particular sentence, they must disclose the substance of their agreement to the judge at the time the defendant is called upon to plead[,]" and the court must engage in a colloquy with the defendant to ensure that his acceptance of the plea is knowing and voluntary. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1023(a) - (b) (2019). "Although a defendant has no constitutional right to have a guilty plea accepted by a trial court, both the defendant and the State are bound by the terms of the plea agreement once the defendant has entered a guilty plea and such plea has been accepted by the trial court." State v. Tyson , 189 N.C. App. 408,...

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