The Implication of People v. Stamps

Panel attorneys should be aware of the new decision in People v. Stamps (June 25, 2020, S255843) __ Cal.5th __ [2020 Cal. Lexis. 3974], which held that trying to obtain retroactive relief under new legislation after there has been a plea could result in undoing the plea bargain.

The issue on review was whether a certificate of probable cause was necessary to seek on appeal the retroactive application of S.B. 139, which now gives the sentencing court discretion to strike a prior serious felony conviction. The Supreme Court held: (1) S.B. 1393 applies retroactively (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at p. *13), (2) a certificate of probable cause is not necessary (id. at p. *15), but also (3) the sentencing court and the prosecution on remand have the discretion to undo the entire plea bargain if the court is inclined to strike the enhancement (id. at pp. *28-*36).

It is the last holding that took many by surprise and can have serious consequences for our clients. While the case was in the context of a prior serious felony conviction, the holding can apply to similar reforms that have been enacted in the past few years, such as S.B. 620 (discretion to strike the firearms enhancement), S.B. 136 (eliminating prison priors in most situations), and S.B. 180 (eliminating drug trafficking priors most situations).

First, a certificate of probable cause is not required because the defendant "does not seek to put aside or withdraw his plea. He does not urge that his plea was invalid when made. Instead, he seeks relief because the law subsequently changed to his potential benefit." (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at p. *15.)

Second, S.B. 1393 applies to cases not yet final because "[e]liminating the prior restriction on the court's ability to strike a serious felony enhancement in the furtherance of justice constitutes an ameliorative change within the meaning of" In re Estada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740. (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at p. *15.)

Third, the Supreme Court expressly rejected the defendant's argument that five years should simply be deducted from the sentence if the trial court decides to strike the enhancement. "Even when applicable, section 1385 ordinarily does not authorize a trial court to exercise its discretion to strike in contravention of a plea bargain for a specified term." (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at p. *16.) The Court distinguished Harris v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 984, where it was held that the beneift of Proposition 47 applied to those who had entered a plea without risk of undoing the bargain. Proposition 47 expressly applied to those "serving a sentence for a conviction, whether by trial or plea." (Pen. Code, sec. 1170.18, subd. (a).) Similar language was not found in S.B. 1393. (Stamps, at pp. *25-*26.) Nor does newly enacted Penal Code section 1016.8, which prevents a defendant from being compelled to waive the benefits of future changes in the law, alter the result. (Id. at p. *27.)

The Court cited with approval People v, Ellis (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 925. (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at pp. *30-*32.) In that case, it was held that "Senate Bill No. 1393 does not entitled defendants who negotiated stipulated sentences 'to whittle down the sentence "but otherwise leave the plea bargain intact." ' " (Ellis, at pp. 943-944, emphasis deleted.) "If the court on remand declines to exercise its discetion under section 1385, that ends the matter and defendant's sentence stands." (Stamps, at p. *33.) "However, if the court is inclined to exercise its discretion . . . such a determination would have consequences to the plea agreement. . . . [T]he court is not authorized to unilaterally modify the plea agreement by striking the serious felony enhancement but otherwise keep the remainder of the bargain." (Ibid.) The court could restructure the sentence instead of simply reducing the time the defendant must serve. Nonetheless, if there is not an agreement, then the prosecution has the power to withdraw the plea bargain. (Ibid.) Even if the prosecution is willing to agree to a modification of the sentence, the court has the power to withdraw its approval of the plea bargain. (Id. at pp. *33-*34.)

Withdrawal of the plea bargain restores the parties to where they were before there was a plea. (Stamps, supra, 2020 Cal. Lexis 3974 at p. *34.) There is no guarantee the defendant will receive the same or lesser sentence if he or she is later convicted. "Given that defendants in criminal cases presumably obtain some benefit from the plea agreement, we anticipate there will be defendants who determine that, notwithstanding their entitlement to seek relief based on the change in the law, their interests are better served by preserving the status quo. That determination, however, lies in each instance with the defendant." (Ellis, supra, 43 Cal.App.5th at p. 944, quoted in Stamps, at p. *35.)

In light of Stamps, attorneys should advise their clients who seek relief under new legislation after a plea that the attempt can bring the adverse consequence of undoing the plea bargain. Some clients might welcome the opportunity to undo their plea bargains, but they should understand this can result in more serious charges or a longer sentence. For some clients, however, they were not undercharged and they could not receive a longer sentence if the court exercises its discretion as requested, and thus their risks would be lower.

(July 27, 2020)


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