A recent case from the New Mexico Court of Appeals points out the intersection of contract law and criminal law. Specifically, the New Mexico Court of Appeals held that criminal plea agreements are enforceable just as other contracts. In so doing, the Court also set forth some unique principles that apply to plea agreements that in most cases would not hold in a standard contract dispute.
The facts of State v. Gomez are interesting in their own right but need not be discussed in great depth here. In a nutshell, the defendant entered into a series of 3 plea agreements. Under the agreements, it was agreed by the State that he would be exposed to a maximum of 9 years on the 3 pleas agreements that were to run concurrently. The district court judge misconstrued the pleas to allow up to 21 years in prison. Based upon the misconstruction of the plea and a violation of probation, the court sentenced the defendant to 21 years, 16 years of which were suspended, for a total of 5 years of incarceration.
The defendant appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the sentence sending it back to district court for sentencing consistent with the written plea agreements. In doing so, the Court made some interesting findings regarding the application of contract law to plea agreements.
The court began by recognizing that a plea agreement is a form of contract and should be treated as such by the court. The law of contract suggests that ambiguities in language should be construed against the draftsman. In case of criminal plea agreements, ambiguity according to the Court of Appeals should be construed against the State and in favor of the defendant. In so doing, the Court must determine the reasonable understanding of the defendant as to the terms of the plea.
The Court set forth exceptions to this rule that would not otherwise apply to contracts. The Court stated that if the plea is ambiguous, the district court judge may resolve ambiguities on the record. With general contract law, agreements or understandings outside the contract itself are typically not admissible to change the terms of the written contract. With criminal plea agreements, unlike the typical contract dispute, the court record if any serves to amend the terms of the plea.
This issue will be most interesting in magistrate and municipal court proceedings throughout New Mexico that are non-record cases, meaning that they are not recorded. This will pose some interesting issues in case of misconstruction of pleas in these non-record courts.
Having said all this regarding construction and interpretation of plea agreements in the face of ambiguous terms, the Court of Appeals stated that there was no such ambiguity present in the plea agreements at hand. The court found that the plea agreements were clear and that the sentencing judge had done nothing, though he had full authority to do so, to amend the plea agreements on the record.
Finally, because the Court found that the plea agreements were unambiguous and that the plea agreements would stand as written, the defendant was entitled to specific performance of the agreements. Again, specific enforcement is drawn from the law of contracts which allows the non-breaching party to enforce the agreements as written.
It was found that the defendant did not wish to withdraw his plea which he might have done in case the district court had refused to accept the plea at the outset. Instead, the defendant chose to enforce the pleas as written through specific performance. As such, the Court of Appeals returned the case to the district court for sentencing in line of the written agreements.