State v. Ditty, COA23-141, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 4, 2024)

In this Cumberland County case, both the State and defendant filed petitions for writ of certiorari after the trial court issued an order to enforce a plea agreement between the parties. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court had jurisdiction to enter the order, but reversed the order’s requirement for specific performance because defendant did not show detrimental reliance on the agreement prior to the State’s withdrawal, remanding for further proceedings. 

In March of 2016, defendant was charged with child abuse and first-degree murder in connection with the death of her daughter. Defendant negotiated a plea agreement based upon the argument that her romantic partner caused the injuries to the child, ultimately reaching an agreement to plead guilty to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. The State requested defendant submit to a polygraph and not to move for bond reduction or seek a probable cause hearing during its investigation, which defendant did. Defendant also submitted to a second interview with investigators. After all this, the State provided a plea agreement for accessory after the fact to first-degree murder, which defendant signed in January 2018, with a plea hearing set for March 2018. However, before the plea hearing, the district attorney’s office cancelled the hearing, and then withdrew as counsel for the State due to a conflict. The newly appointed special prosecutor then cancelled the plea agreement in April 2018 and made a new offer which defendant rejected. Defendant filed a motion to enforce the prior plea agreement, which the trial court denied in November 2018. Defendant proceeded to trial on the charges, and filed a second motion seeking specific performance of the plea agreement. In November 2021, a second judge acting as the trial court granted this second motion to enforce the agreement, leading to the present appeal prior to any judgment in defendant’s case. 

The Court of Appeals first took pains to explain the complicated procedural history of the case, noting it arose from an interlocutory order reviewed under N.C. Rule of Appellate Procedure 21(a)(1). The court then moved to the issue of the trial court’s jurisdiction, explaining that the initial ruling of November 2018 was not properly entered in the record. The court turned to State v. Oates, 366 N.C. 264 (2012), for the proposition that in criminal cases a judgment is entered “when the clerk of court records or files the judge’s decision.” Slip Op. at 12. Although the trial court announced a November 2018 ruling in open court, the record did not show any file stamp or entry by the clerk recording the order, leading the court to conclude it was never entered. This meant that the second judge acting as trial court had jurisdiction to enter an order in November 2021. 

Having established jurisdiction, the court moved to the enforceability of the plea, concluding that the trial court mistakenly determined defendant’s due process rights were violated. The court reviewed Supreme Court precedent on the issue including State v. Collins, 300 N.C. 142 (1980), and articulated the applicable rule:

The State may be bound to an offer which has not resulted in the actual entry and acceptance of the defendant’s guilty plea only when the defendant is necessarily prejudiced by changing her position in detrimental reliance upon that agreement prior to judicial sanction or the State’s withdrawal.

Slip Op. at 20. Here, the court did not find the necessary detrimental reliance, explaining the terms of the plea agreement did not require defendant to submit to the interview or forego the bond reduction or probable cause hearings, and those events took place prior to the plea agreement offer. The trial court’s findings did not show detrimental reliance by defendant after the presentation of the plea agreement in January 2018, leading the court to conclude it was error to order specific performance of the agreement.