Com v. Martinez: Plea Deals are Contracts
The right to trial by jury is so valuable that giving it up binds the prosecution to whatever was promised the defendant–even in the face of a subsequent statutory change. This case is a consolidation of three cases that came out of York County (home of the “first” capital of the United States). The case turns out to be a simple re-affirmation of the right to the benefit of your bargain, even if you are a criminal, and that bargain is with a prosecutor.
Three defendants accused of crimes agreed to plea deals that required them to register under Megan’s Law, which provided lesser registration requirements than its successor, SORNA. SORNA, by its terms, applied to those still under registration requirements from Megan’s Law, which means that many registered sex offenders saw their registration times extended on the activation of SORNA in December of 2012.
But three York County registrants–Martinez, Grace and Shower–filed motions with a trial judge in York County, who saw this new requirement as a violation of both the ex post facto clauses of our Constitutions, and of basic principles of contract law.
The Commonwealth appealed. Each of the three convicts argued that the precise amount of time they would be required to register was a material element in the deal they struck with prosecutors; requiring them to register for longer terms, after they had struck deals, would violate their contract with the Commonwealth.
The Court agreed with Martinez, et al, and if anything, expanded the argument by ruling that it does not matter if a particular provision is central or “collateral” to a defendant’s plea deal; rather, the simple inquiry is “whether an alleged terms is part of the parties’ plea agreement” at all, and if it is, then “the convicted criminal is entitled to specific performance.”
Although plea agreements are notably different from standard contracts in that they require acceptance by a court, once the trial court “has accepted a plea agreement entered into by the Commonwealth and a defendant, the prosecutor is duty bound to fulfill the promises made in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea.” This is based on the precious consideration supplied to the Commonwealth by the defendant, namely “the very valued constitutional guarantees attendant the right to trial by jury.”
This case offers a unique paradox for criminal defendants, and particularly those convicted of sex crimes. Those convicted at the same time that these three defendants pled guilty will be required to register for longer terms under SORNA’s lengthened reporting requirements. Pleading guilty, rather than being convicted, allowed these three to “freeze” their reporting requirements in such a way that they could not be extended. Holding the Commonwealth to its contractual promises during plea deals turns out to be easier than avoiding ex post facto punishment–at least for now.