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May Prosecutor Withdraw from Plea Bargain over AB 1950?

When Assembly Bill 1950 passed, mandating a two-year probation period for many felonies and a one-year probation period for most misdemeanors, experienced criminal defense attorneys predicted that some prosecutors would not like this at all.  The following case summary exemplifies one such response by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office.

Defendant Laura Marie Shelby was charged in Sacramento Superior Court with one count of embezzlement by an employee (Penal Code § 508) and one count of unlawful use of personal identification information (Penal Code § 530.5 (“Identity Theft”)). 

In exchange for her plea of no contest to the embezzlement count, the District Attorney agreed to dismiss the 530.5 count.  Ms. Shelby then stipulated that as a bookkeeper for Norwood Construction Services, she forged her boss’ signature on several checks and cashed them for personal use. 

Under the plea agreement, on January 21, 2020, she was placed on five years of formal felony probation with 365 days in the county jail.  She was also ordered to pay $72,972.47 in restitution to the victim.

On May 6, 2021, Ms. Shelby filed a notice of appeal, challenging the length of her probation and the amount of restitution.  She argued that Assembly Bill 1950 was retroactive to her case and that under this new law, her probation must be reduced to three years (not two years because the amount of embezzlement was over $25,000, so her probation period is three years under Penal Code § 1203.1(m)(2)) and the amount of her restitution must be reduced by $5,816.25.

The People agreed that Assembly Bill 1950 is retroactive, but argued that since the sentence was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement (not an open plea to the court), as a party to the plea agreement, they must be given the opportunity to either accept the reduced probation term or withdraw from the plea agreement “if the reduced probation term is found to have deprived the People of the benefit of their bargain.”  People v. Collins (1978) 21 Cal. 3d 208; People v. Scarano (2022) 74 Cal. App. 5th 993; review granted June 1, 2022; and People v. Stamps (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 685.

The reader of this website may recognize the Collins case, as it has been cited to in multiple cases under a variety of contexts.  A summary of it follows several paragraphs below.

The First Appellate District Court sided with Shelby, finding that the term of probation must be reduced under 1950 and that the People did not have the right to withdraw from the plea bargain under Stamps, supra.

The First Appellate District court found that the change in the law did not deprive the People of the benefit of the bargain.  Ms. Shelby was still sentenced to the maximum probation period allowed by law.

The appellate court explained their ruling by distinguishing Collins from Shelby.  In Collins, defendant was charged with fifteen felonies, including burglary, attempted burglary, forcible rape, assault with intent to commit rape and forcible oral copulation.  Pursuant to a plea deal, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of oral copulation and in return, the prosecutor agreed to strike the allegation that the crime was committed by means of force and to dismiss the fourteen other counts. 

Prior to sentencing, the Legislature decriminalized nonforcible oral copulation, which was the only crime to which defendant pled guilty.  The trial court nonetheless sentenced defendant to state prison.  Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in imposing a sentence because the conduct to which he pled guilty was no longer punishable at the time of sentencing.  Collins, supra, pp. 211 – 212.  The California Supreme Court agreed and reversed the conviction because “[a] conviction cannot stand on appeal when it rests upon conduct that is no longer sanctioned.” Id., at 213.

As relevant here, the Supreme Court also held that the People must be permitted to revive one or more of the dismissed counts because the change in the law deprived them of the benefit of the bargain.  The Supreme Court further explained that the fundamental principal in plea bargaining is reciprocal benefits and if defendant “gains total relief from his vulnerability to a sentence, the state is substantially deprived of the benefit of its bargain by the relief granted.” 
Here, Ms. Shelly still had to serve a 365 day jail term and pay over $70,000 in restitution (the appellate court did decrease restitution by $1,000 in response to the appeal), so she did not gain “total relief” like in Collins.

Therefore, the appellate court granted Shelly’s appeal and shortened probation to three years, rejecting the People opposition based on Collins

We present this summary to our reader because we fear that Collins is a case that can be easily misunderstood, but if the underlying facts of it are understood, it should not be misapplied.

For more information about AB 1950, please click on the following articles:
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