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Criminal Nuggets


Feb 20, 2019

People v. Johnson, 2019 IL 122956 (January). Episode 593 (Duration 10:10)

Defendant has to move to withdraw his plea if he wants to challenge a sentence that was within the agreed cap but where the judge relied on improper factors.

Gist

The sole issue before this court is whether the appellate court erroneously reached the merits of defendant’s sentencing challenge. That determination turns on the proper application of Rule 604(d), which is a question of law, reviewed de novo.

Facts

Defendant plead guilty to 2 charges.

The state dismissed more serous counts and agreed to a 13 year sentencing cap. Defendant was given 11 years. He then sought to vacate the plea because he said the trial court relied on improper sentencing factors. After examining the applicable rules and the relevant case law, the appellate court held that a defendant who enters into a partially negotiated plea agreement need not withdraw his plea in order to challenge his sentence on the basis that the trial court relied on improper sentencing factors.

The Old Illinois Supreme Court Rule 604(d)

Rule 604(d) provides that

“[n]o appeal from a judgment entered upon a plea of guilty shall be taken unless the defendant *** files in the trial court a motion to reconsider the sentence, if only the sentence is being challenged, or, if the plea is being challenged, a motion to withdraw his plea of guilty and vacate the judgment.”

Rule 604(d) (eff. Aug. 1, 1992).

But What If There Is An Agreement?

In People v. Evans, 174 Ill. 2d 320, 332 (1996), we held that a defendant may not unilaterally seek to reduce his sentence by filing a motion for sentence reconsideration under Rule 604(d) where he pleads guilty to certain charges in exchange for an agreement to dismiss charges and recommend a specific sentence—a plea arrangement characterized as “negotiated.”

In that situation, a defendant must move to withdraw the plea and vacate the judgment and show that the granting of the motion is necessary to correct a manifest injustice. 

Our rationale for this conclusion was dictated by the nature of the plea agreement and the application of contract law principles. We explained that a defendant who seeks to reduce the agreed-upon sentence seeks “to hold the State to its part of the bargain while unilaterally modifying the sentence to which they had earlier agreed.” Id. at 327.

What If It’s Just A Sentencing Cap?

Thereafter, in People v. Linder, 186 Ill. 2d 67 (1999), we applied the same contract law principles with equal force where a defendant agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a recommended sentencing cap. Again, we highlighted the significance of the plea bargaining process.

Under this type of negotiated plea, we reasoned that, “by agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a recommended sentencing cap, a defendant is, in effect, agreeing not to challenge any sentence imposed below that cap on the grounds that it is excessive.” Id. at 74.

We explained that under these circumstances, allowing a defendant to move to reconsider his sentence without withdrawing his plea “unfairly binds the State to the terms of the plea agreement while giving the defendant the opportunity to avoid or modify those terms.” Id. Thus, we held these types of negotiated agreements raised the same concerns that were present in Evans.

If There Is No Agreement What-So-Ever?

In People v. Lumzy, 191 Ill. 2d 182, 187 (2000), we held that, where absolutely no agreement existed between the parties as to the defendant’s sentence, a defendant is not required to withdraw his plea in order to challenge his sentence. Under this type of plea, no contract principles were violated, and the sentence did not go “hand in hand” with the plea because the State “did not make any facet of sentencing an element of its bargain with defendant.” Id. at 189.

Thereafter, in People v. Diaz, 192 Ill. 2d 211, 225 (2000), we summarized that under Rule 604(d) a defendant is not required to move to withdraw his guilty plea in order to challenge his sentence where the plea bargain is silent as to sentencing. However, we reiterated that, where the plea agreement between a defendant and the State concerns both the charging and sentencing aspects of the defendant’s case, the defendant must move to withdraw the plea.

The General Rule

Our rationale is again animated by the nature of the plea and contract principles because the sentence is premised upon the plea.

“The existence of a sentencing concession by the State activates the application of the Evans rule, as the sentence is thereby made a part of the bargain between the parties. Therefore, if a plea agreement limits or forecloses the State from arguing for a sentence from the full range of penalties available under law, in order to challenge his sentence, a defendant must first move to withdraw his plea in the trial court. If the court grants the motion, both parties are then returned to the status quo as it existed prior to the acceptance of the plea.”

The New Illinois Supreme Court Rule 604(d)

In 2000, consistent with the development of our case law, this court amended Rule 604(d). The rule now includes the following pertinent language:

“No appeal shall be taken upon a negotiated plea of guilty challenging the sentence as excessive unless the defendant, within 30 days of the imposition of sentence, files a motion to withdraw the plea of guilty and vacate the judgment. For purposes of this rule, a negotiated plea of guilty is one in which the prosecution has bound itself to recommend a specific sentence, or a specific range of sentence, or where the prosecution has made concessions relating to the sentence to be imposed and not merely to the charge or charges then pending.”

Ill. S. Ct. R. 604(d) (eff. Nov. 1, 2000).

Some Limited 604(d) Exceptions

The State notes that this court has exempted the application of Rule 604(d) to negotiated pleas in two narrow instances:

(1) where a defendant challenged his sentence as not authorized by statute (People v. Williams, 179 Ill. 2d 331 (1997); People v. Wilson, 181 Ill. 2d 409 (1998)) and
(2) where a defendant challenged the statute under which he was sentenced as facially unconstitutional and void ab initio (People v. Guevara, 216 Ill. 2d 533 (2005)).

The State asserts that defendant’s sentencing challenge does not fall within either instance.

A Conflict In The Districts

Defendant acknowledges that he does not wish to withdraw his “favorable” plea. Rather, in an attempt to preclude the application of the rule to his claim on appeal, defendant maintains there is a distinction between a challenge to a sentence as being “excessive” and the challenge he now makes—a challenge to a sentence because the court improperly relied on certain statutory aggravating factors.

He maintains that the distinction lies in the fact that his challenge is one of constitutional dimension that implicates due process and fundamental fairness.

The Second and Fourth Districts have drawn a distinction between an “excessive” sentencing challenge and an “improper” sentencing challenge, finding the latter challenge not barred by Rule 604(d). The Third District rejected this argument, finding it would reduce the withdrawal requirement of Rule 604(d) to “nothingness” and would deny the State the benefit of its bargain in negotiated pleas. People v. Rademacher, 2016 IL App (3d) 130881, ¶¶ 58-60.

Thus, to resolve this split in authority, we consider the nature of defendant’s challenge.

Issue

The State maintains that Rule 604(d) precludes a defendant who entered into a negotiated guilty plea from challenging a sentence that was statutorily authorized and within the terms of the plea agreement.

The State argues that pursuant to Rule 604(d) defendant’s recourse is to seek to withdraw the plea and vacate the judgment.

 Defendant contends that the circuit court considered improper aggravating factors in sentencing that were inherent in the offense. The prohibition against dual use of an aggravating factor, referred to as “double enhancement,” is “based on the assumption that, in designating the appropriate range of punishment for a criminal offense, the legislature necessarily considered the factors inherent in the offense.” People v. Phelps, 211 Ill. 2d 1, 12 (2004).

Analysis

Thus, when a defendant contends the court improperly considered a statutory aggravating factor that was implicit in the offense, the defendant is asserting that the court imposed a “harsher sentence than might otherwise have been imposed” had the court not considered the improper statutory factor. Thus, defendant’s argument is essentially that, had the trial court not erred in its application of the statute and had it not erroneously considered those statutory factors, he would have gotten a lower sentence than the 11-year sentence that was imposed.

Stated another way, defendant contends the court imposed an excessive sentence.

 

Ultimately, we find the nature of defendant’s challenge to be a distinction without a difference for purposes of Rule 604(d). To find otherwise would allow almost every sentencing challenge in a criminal case to be restated in a constitutional due process framework as a way to avoid the rule. This type of exception would result in making Rule 604(d)’s requirements superfluous.

 

Diaz Had It Right All Along

Rather, we find Diaz to be ample support for our conclusion that the nature of the plea agreement and contract principles bar defendant from moving to reconsider his sentence.

In Diaz, the defendant entered into a negotiated plea in which he agreed to plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for the State’s agreement to certain sentencing concessions, which resulted in a recommendation to cap his sentence at 30 years. The defendant received a sentence of 20 years, well within the bargain, but sought to challenge his sentence on appeal because the trial court improperly allowed certain evidence to be introduced during the sentencing proceedings. As a result of the evidentiary errors committed by the circuit court, defendant argued he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. The State contended that the plea agreement was analogous to the agreement in Linder and, therefore, defendant’s recourse was to move to withdraw his plea.

We agreed.

Similarly, in this case, defendant entered into a negotiated plea in which he pleaded guilty in exchange for not only dismissal of certain charges, including a Class X offense, but also sentencing concessions by the State. Defendant’s plea was entered with the full knowledge that he could receive a sentence within the cap—that is, any sentence within the 4- to 13-year range.

Defendant received a sentence two years below the maximum sentence of 13 years to which he knew he could be sentenced. Under the agreement, defendant avoided a potential punishment beyond that which he deemed to be fair and received the certainty of a lower sentencing range. The sentence imposed was within the terms of the bargain and was well within the permissible sentencing range for that offense.

Like the defendant in Diaz, defendant now seeks to retain the State’s concession while freely challenging his sentence. The sentence cap and plea went together as material elements of the plea bargain. Defendant has received a sentencing benefit from the agreement not to seek a sentence above the cap and has received the certainty of a lower sentencing range. To “allow defendant to unilaterally modify his agreement under these circumstances while holding the State to its end of the bargain” would violate contract principles.

No Hobson’s Choice

Consistent with our precedent, defendant’s recourse under Rule 604(d) is to seek to withdraw the plea and return the parties to the status quo as it existed prior to the acceptance of the plea. Defendant followed that course of action but failed to show the plea was not voluntary or knowing or that the granting of his motion was necessary to correct a manifest injustice.

He has now chosen to abandon any argument on appeal with respect to the withdrawal of his plea. Despite the nature of the plea agreement and the contract principles at issue, defendant maintains that his challenge is distinct because it implicates the integrity of the judicial system. He also contends that he is otherwise left with a Hobson’s choice to accept the court’s erroneous sentence or withdraw a favorable plea.

Again, we find the nature of defendant’s challenge no different than the challenge in Diaz for purposes of applying Rule 604(d), where the defendant similarly argued he was denied a fair sentencing hearing because the trial court allowed improper evidence to be introduced at the hearing. Despite that fact, the defendant entered into a negotiated plea agreement to a sentence that was authorized by statute and was within the terms of the agreement.

Holding

We hold that under these circumstances a defendant’s recourse is to seek to withdraw the plea and return the parties to the status quo does not undermine judicial integrity. In sum, after considering the language of the rule and this court’s precedent, we hold that a defendant who enters into a negotiated plea agreement may not challenge his sentence on the basis that the court relied on improper statutory sentencing factors.

This type of sentencing challenge is an excessive sentence challenge. Under Rule 604(d), a defendant’s recourse is to seek to withdraw the guilty plea and return the parties to the status quo before the plea.

Accordingly, the appellate court erred in addressing the merits of defendant’s sentencing challenge. 

Ultimate Illinois Sentencing Guide

Check out the Illinois Sentencing Resource Page to discover more on this topic.