Enforcing Guilty Plea Agreements

On February 5, 2014, the South Carolina Court of Appeals decided Smith v. State, holding that trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting when the prosecutor failed to honor the plea agreement.

Smith, originally charged with murder, pleaded guilty to the lesser-included offense of voluntary manslaughter.  Under the plea agreement, the Solicitor was not supposed to make any sentencing recommendation.  During sentencing, however, the Solicitor asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence.  The Court remanded the case “for resentencing on the charge consistent with the original plea agreement.”

Smith is consistent with prior South Carolina case law.

In Sprouse v. State, 355 S.C. 335, 585 S.E.2d 278 (2003), during a guilty plea in Newberry County, the Solicitor promised Sprouse that he also could plead guilty to a non-violent burglary charge in Laurens County, which is in the same judicial circuit.  The Solicitor in Laurens County, however, did not honor the agreement and required Sprouse to plead guilty to a violent burglary.  Our Supreme Court remanded for specific performance of the plea agreement.

In Thompson v. State, 340 S.C. 112, 117, 531 S.E.2d 294, 297 (2000), “The fact that Thompson was unsure whether to plead guilty up until the last minutes before trial coupled with the fact that he was under the impression the solicitor would not make a sentencing request is enough evidence to demonstrate a reasonable probability that Thompson would not have pled guilty but for his attorney’s ineffective assistance” in not enforcing the plea agreement.  Our Supreme Court remanded for resentencing.

In Jordan v. State, 297 S.C. 52, 54, 374 S.E.2d 683, 684-85 (1988), “Jordan insisted on proceeding to trial [and] only agreed to plead guilty when he believed the solicitor would neither oppose nor recommend probation.”  Our Supreme Court “remand[ed] for either specific performance of the plea agreement and resentencing or for a new trial.  Id. 297 S.C. at 55, 374 S.E.2d at 685.

At first glance, Smith, Thompson, and Jordan seem inconsistent with State v. Thrift, 312 S.C. 282, 295, 440 S.E.2d 341, 348 (1994), which held “all plea agreements must be on the record and must recite the scope, offenses, and individuals involved in the agreement.”   As post-conviction relief cases, however, the courts took into account trial counsel’s failures to ensure the plea negotiations were placed on the record and object when the prosecutor deviated from the agreements.

Please click this link to read Smith v. State.