State v. Wentz, 284 N.C. App. 736 (Aug. 2, 2022)

In this Pasquotank County case, defendant appealed denial of his attempt to withdraw a guilty plea under N.C.G.S § 15A-1024. After reviewing the matter, the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded.

After a string of break-ins in the Elizabeth City area in 2019, defendant was indicted for breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering, possession of stolen goods, larceny of a firearm, possession of a stolen firearm, possession of a firearm by a felon, and being a habitual felon due to three prior felony convictions. Subsequently, defendant agreed to enter an Alford plea to possession of a firearm by a felon, felony breaking and entering, and to admit his status as a habitual felon in exchange for dismissal of the remaining charges. The text of the plea agreement said that the state would not oppose consolidation of the offenses for sentencing, and that defendant would receive a sentence in the 77-to-105-month range. 

At the hearing to enter the plea agreement, the trial court declined to consolidate the felonies for sentencing purposes. Hearing that the trial court would not consolidate the offenses, defendant made a motion to withdraw his Alford plea, based upon his understanding that he would receive a sentence of 77 to 105 months. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea and sentenced him to 77 to 105 months for possession of a firearm by a felon, followed by 67 to 93 months for breaking and entering. On appeal defendant argued that N.C.G.S. § 15A-1024 permitted him to withdraw his plea once the trial court imposed a sentence inconsistent with the plea agreement. 

Reviewing the matter, the Court of Appeals found that the two separate sentences imposed were different than the bargained-for sentence of 77 to 105 months in the plea agreement. The court explained that applicable precedent on plea agreements requires “strict adherence” to the terms of the agreement since a defendant is waiving a constitutional right to trial; any change from the negotiated agreement entitles the defendant to relief. Slip Op. at ¶ 14. Here, the trial court declined to consolidate the charges, and imposed a sentence in excess of the negotiated range, entitling defendant to withdraw his plea. The court explained that once the trial court decided to impose a different sentence, they should: “(1) inform the defendant of the decision to impose a sentence other than that provided in the plea agreement; (2) inform the defendant that he can withdraw his plea; and (3) if the defendant chooses to withdraw his plea, grant a continuance until the next session of court.” Slip Op. at ¶ 12, citing State v. Rhodes, 163 N.C. App. 191, 195 (2004). Because in this matter the trial court heard and denied a motion to withdraw the plea, the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, finding that defendant was no longer bound by the plea agreement.