State v. Knight, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-100 (Apr. 6, 2021)

The state and the defendant negotiated a plea agreement in which the defendant would plead guilty to assault by strangulation, second-degree kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon, and agreed that he would receive one consolidated active sentence. Under the terms of the plea agreement, sentencing would be postponed for two months; however, if the defendant failed to appear for sentencing, the agreement would no longer be binding and sentencing would be in the court’s discretion. The defendant did appear on the scheduled sentencing date (a Tuesday), but the sentencing was first continued to Friday of the same week before being rescheduled again to Wednesday. Defendant’s attorney stated that he had informed the defendant of the new date, but on Wednesday the defendant was not present at the beginning of court. The defendant showed up an hour and fifteen minutes later, and said he thought that court started an hour later. The prosecutor argued that by failing to appear as agreed, the defendant had breached the terms of the plea bargain and was therefore subject to sentencing in the court’s discretion. After hearing from the victim and both attorneys, the judge agreed with the state and sentenced the defendant to consecutive active sentences instead of one consolidated sentence as laid out in the plea agreement.

The defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to sentence him in accordance with the plea agreement, and the appellate court agreed. Although plea agreements are contractual in nature, they also involve a waiver of the defendant’s constitutional rights and there must be safeguards to ensure that the defendant receives what he is due. In this case, the defendant did not breach the terms of the plea agreement because he appeared as ordered on the original sentencing date. Additionally, although the defendant was late to court on the rescheduled date, he did appear. Since the state still received the benefit of its bargain by securing the guilty pleas, and since the spirit of the agreement (that the defendant would appear for sentencing at a later date) was fulfilled, the appellate court concluded that the defendant should not have to forfeit what was promised to him under the agreement. The defendant’s “tardiness” did not constitute a breach; therefore, the state violated the plea agreement by asking the court to sentence the defendant in its discretion, and the trial court erred by imposing a sentence in violation of the defendant’s due process rights. The appellate court vacated the judgment, reinstated the plea agreement, and remanded for further proceedings.