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What Happens When the Legal System Gives a Criminal Defendant Incorrect Information About a Potential Sentence?

Mistakes happen in every profession. The law is no exception. Judges and lawyers can misread or misunderstand a key fact during a criminal trial. But what happens when that mistake significantly impacts a defendant’s basic rights?

Court of Special Appeals Vacates Conviction Based on Misinformed Plea Deal

A recent published decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Reyes v. State, addressed just such a situation. In this case, a criminal defendant was incorrectly informed about the maximum possible prison sentence she faced if she pleaded guilty to a drug charge. Only after she entered the plea did she learn the actual maximum sentence was four times greater than what she had been told.

To provide some background, the defendant came to the United States from El Salvador as a child. She was not a United States citizen and spoke imperfect English. And she had no prior experience of any sort with the American criminal justice system prior to the events of this case.

In March 2002, a police informant met with the defendant, ostensibly to purchase illegal drugs. The defendant was with two other individuals. She went to the back of her vehicle and opened the trunk. But no drugs were actually sold.

A short time later, the police pulled over the defendant after observing a possible traffic violation. The defendant then consented to a search of her vehicle. Officers searched the trunk and found 16 grams of cocaine. The defendant subsequently spoke to police without an attorney and admitted she had planned to sell that cocaine to the police informant.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Throughout the legal proceedings, the defendant was told by multiple parties–including the prosecutor, the judge, and even her own attorney–that the maximum penalty if convicted of this crime was five years in prison. In fact, it was 20 years in prison. The error seems to have been the result of the lawyers confusing what was then the maximum penalties for possession with intent to distribute marijuana (which was five years) versus cocaine. The defendant was also told, incorrectly, that a guilty plea would not affect her immigration status.

The defendant ultimately entered a guilty plea. The court imposed a one-year suspended sentence plus one year probation. However, some years later, the federal government denied the defendant’s application for citizenship based on her drug conviction–which, again, she was never informed before entering her guilty plea was a possibility.

The defendant then filed a petition for a Writ of Error Coram Nobis, basically a request to correct a “fundamental error” of law. In this case, the defendant said her original guilty plea was the product of being incorrectly told about the consequences of that plea. The Court of Special Appeals agreed and granted the petition. It held that the plea “was not made knowingly and voluntarily, making her conviction invalid based on constitutional or fundamental grounds.”

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.