GUILTY PLEAS MEAN WHAT THEY SAY

These days we “agree” to many different terms of service.  It might seem that the precise terms are unimportant.  In truth, we need to read the fine print.  Agreements mean what they say, and this includes plea agreements.

The Court Will Not Ignore Plain Language

Recently, the Indian Supreme Court reminded criminal defendants to pay attention to the language of plea agreements.  In State v. Smith, the Court again applied basic contract principals to a guilty plea.  This includes the most important rule of contract interpretation: plain and unambiguous language will be given its plain and ordinary meaning.

State v. Smith

In Smith, the defendant pleaded guilty to theft as a Class D felony.  He also agreed that he was “precluded from asking for misdemeanor treatment in [his case].”  Later, based upon a change in the statutes, he asked the trial court to change the felony conviction to a misdemeanor conviction.  The Supreme Court denied that request.  Basically, the Court concluded that the agreement meant what it said: The defendant could not ask for misdemeanor treatment in his case.

Read the Fine Print

The lesson is to read the fine print.  As with any contract, you should be aware of what a plea agreement says.  The plea bargaining process is an actual negotiation.  If you do not like what a proposed agreement says, you may make a counter proposal.  Just make sure you understand that every word means something, and it usually means exactly what it says.


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