Prior to reading this article, we recommend that you first read our previous article in which we discussed the laws surrounding plea agreements, and the issue of plea agreements involving sex offender registration.
On December 12, 2012, a Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court issued an order precluding Defendant from having to register as a sex offender under the new laws because his plea agreement was negotiated by both parties to avoid this consequence. The Commonwealth appealed the ruling, and the PA Superior court released its opinion on December 12, 2013.
BACKGROUND – TRIAL COURT
In the instant case, Defendant was charged with three counts of statutory sexual assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3122.1), two counts of aggravated indecent assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3125(a)(8)), three counts of indecent assault (18 Pa.C.S. § 3126(a)(8)), and two counts of criminal use of a communication facility (18 Pa.C.S. § 7512). A plea was negotiated, however, where Defendant plead guilty to three counts of statutory sexual assault, three counts of indecent assault, and one count of criminal use of a communication facility, none of which charges required registration under laws at that time (2009). The two counts of aggravated indecent assault, which would have required registration were withdrawn.
After learning that he would be required to register pursuant to SORNA laws that were to be enacted in PA on December 20, 2011, Defendant filed a motion seeking termination of his supervision on December 13, 2012. The trial court denied the petition, but entered an order stating that Defendant was not subject to the registration requirements of SORNA:
Application of [SORNA] to [Defendant] violates due process of law, fundamental fairness, and provisions of the negotiated plea agreement entered into between Defendant and the government. It would also destroy the process of negotiated plea agreements essential to the efficient disposition of criminal cases in Westmoreland County.
SUPERIOR COURT OPINION
The Commonwealth appealed the decision, and the Superior Court issued its opinion. Defendant argued that that non-registration was a term of his plea agreement, and he is due the benefit of his bargain. As expected, the Commonwealth attempted to use the “collateral consequence” argument; however, the high court noted that this was not the proper standard of review, and instead, that Defendant properly framed the issue as an analysis of contract law.
The first part of their analysis was to determine “what the parties to this plea agreement reasonably understood to be the terms of the agreement.” The court noted two important and obvious pieces of evidence that addressed this question: 1) the specific discussions of not having to register in the sentencing transcript, and 2) the fact that every count of the one crime that required registration was withdrawn by the Commonwealth. With this evidence, the Court concluded that the plea was fashioned to preclude Megan’s Law registration.
The next question was whether “it was error for the trial court to order specific enforcement of the terms of that bargain.” The court again noted that the Commonwealth’s contention that SORNA registration is a non-punitive collateral consequence was not relevant to the instant standard of review, and that “the dispositive question is whether registration was a term of the bargain struck by the parties to this appeal.” The court stated:
The terms of plea agreements are not limited to the withdrawal of charges, or the length of a sentence. Parties may agree to — and seek enforcement of — terms that fall outside these areas. See Kroh, 654 A.2d at 1169 (ordering specific enforcement of a plea bargain that barred the Commonwealth from calling the defendant as a witness in a separate proceeding). Moreover, even though a plea agreement arises “in a criminal context, it remains contractual in nature and is to be analyzed under contract law standards.” Id. at 1172.
In negotiating a plea that will not require him to register as a sex offender, the defendant trades a non-trivial panoply of rights in exchange for his not being subject to a non-trivial restriction. Fundamental fairness dictates that this bargain be enforced.
[Defendant’s] reliance on the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971), lends support to this conclusion. The Santobello Court ruled that “when a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.”
The Commonwealth attempted to analogize the instant case to prior decisions, but the high court found these analogies to be misplaced. In one case relied on by the Commonwealth Commonwealth v. Benner, 853 A.2d 1068 (Pa. Super. 2004)), the defendant entered a plea of guilty that subjected him to a 10-year registration requirement, but later was required to register for life when a new version of Megan’s Law was enacted. The defendant argued that his plea was involuntary and unlawful because he was not made aware of the registration requirement by the trial court, or, in the alternative, that he should be subject to the 10-year requirement in effect at the time of his plea. The high Court found the this case was easily distinguishable from the instant case because registration WAS a requirement of his plea, AND the record did not support the defendant’s contention that he had bargained for non-registration as a term of his plea.
The Superior Court also stated that “the cases relied upon by the Commonwealth address the voluntariness of those defendants’ pleas. (See Benner, supra; Commonwealth v. Leidig, 956 A.2d 399 (Pa. 2008)). The defendants in Leidig and Benner did not seek specific enforcement of their pleas under contract law principles. In the instant case, [Defendant] does not challenge the validity of his plea, or seek to withdraw it; rather, he asks this Court to enforce the terms of his plea. Thus, the cases cited by the Commonwealth do not control the issue currently before this Court.”
SUPERIOR COURT RULING
Accordingly, we conclude that the parties to this appeal entered into a plea bargain that contained a negotiated term that Hainesworth did not have to register as a sex offender. As such, it was not error for the trial court to order specific enforcement of that bargain, and we affirm the trial court’s order.
What does this mean? This means that if you have “proof” that your plea agreement was fashioned to avoid sex offender registration, and you were subsequently required to register pursuant to SORNA, you should contact a defense attorney to file a motion to enforce your agreement based upon the outcome of this case. The level of “proof” required is not explicity clear, but examples of proof include: 1) transcripts, 2) correspondence documents, 3) admissions by prosecutors, and 4) legal documents showing which charges were dismissed.
Please note that our firm does not handle registration issues, but strives to provide the public with a clear understanding of the laws. If this ruling is applicable to your situation, you should contact and hire a criminal defense attorney in your area immediately. If you reside in the Pittsburgh area, you might consider contacting The Law Offices of David S. Shrager who handles such issues. If you or someone you know is currently being charged with a sex crime and needs legal assistance, please visit our website and contact our sex crime defense attorneys.
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