In the case of People v. Smith, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a plea agreement which barred Defendant from running for public office while on probation violates public policy.
What Happened in People v. Smith
State Senator Virgil Smith was the defendant in this case. Smith was charged in the Wayne County Circuit Court with domestic assault, felonious assault, felony-firearm, and malicious destruction of property. Smith worked out a plea bargain with the prosecution.
He plead guilty to malicious destruction of property in exchange for dismissal of the other charges and sentence agreement of 10 months in jail with 5 years of probation.
A part of the plea bargain provided that Smith would resign from office and agree not to run for any public office while on probation. This is called the “bar-to-office” provision. At sentencing, the Court on its own voided both the resignation and bar-to-office provision as unconstitutional. The other parts of the sentence agreement were upheld by the trial court.
The prosecution moved to withdraw the plea agreement as the terms as agreed to were not honored in full by the Court. However, the Court proceeded with sentencing. Following sentencing, Smith resigned from public office.
On appeal, the prosecution argued it was entitled to withdraw the plea agreement because it wasn’t followed. However, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal, claiming that Smith had already resigned and the issue was moot, and it didn’t seem as if Smith had further interest in pursuing public office. On the day the appeal was dismissed, Smith filed a petition to run for Detroit City Council. Before the election the Prosecution again appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court sent the case back down to the Court of Appeals, which held the resignation and bar-to-office clauses of the plea agreement were unconstitutional. The COA further held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in not allowing the prosecution to withdraw the plea deal because a significant portion of the plea deal was still followed. The Prosecution again appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, and from there the Court analyzed the situation.
First, the Court would not address whether the resignation from office agreement was constitutional because Smith had already resigned and the issue was moot.
Second, the Court found that bar-to-office agreement to be void on the grounds of public policy. Essentially a plea bargain is a contract. A plea bargain is where a criminal defendant admits guilt to something in exchange for some benefit in return. For example, a person charged with domestic violence might plead guilty to the lesser crime of disorderly person in exchange for a dismissal of the domestic violence charge.
A general legal principle holds that a contract may be void and unenforceable where it violates public policy. The legal framework for analyzing whether a plea bargain violates public policy comes from the United States Supreme Court case of Town of Newton v. Rumery. The rule from that case: A promise is unenforceable if if the interest in its enforcement is outweighed in the by a public policy harmed by enforcement of that agreement.
The Court noted the public policy here was the prosecution’s power and use of that power. Prosecutors have the ability to charge people with crimes, and can decide how severe those charges will be and if there will be a plea bargain offer following any charges. A plea bargain agreement practice involving “bar-to-office” provisions could allow politics or the politicization of charging decisions against individuals. Of course the office of prosecuting attorney is an elected position, which make the possibility of a political conflict all that more real. In addition, the democratic process is effected in ways that are unfair to the voters who could vote for individuals charged with crimes. The voters are harmed by such plea bargains.
And finally, the Court found the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to allow the Prosecution to withdraw the plea agreement offer. The trial court was free to deny the specific provision within the plea agreement. However, the trial court must also give the Prosecution an opportunity to withdraw the plea offer as well.
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Sam Bernstein is a Washtenaw County Criminal Lawyer.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.