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Name: Harris v. Superior Court
Case #: B264839
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 5
Opinion Date: 12/18/2015
Subsequent History: Review granted 2/24/2016: S231489

The People are entitled to withdraw from plea agreement where reducing defendant’s felony to a misdemeanor under Proposition 47 deprived the People of the benefit of the plea bargain. Harris was charged with robbery for hitting a stranger in the face and taking his cell phone. Pursuant to a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to grand theft, admitted a prior strike, and was sentenced to six years in prison. After Proposition 47 passed, Harris petitioned to reduce his grand theft conviction to a misdemeanor. The People filed a motion to withdraw from the plea agreement and reinstate the previously dismissed charges on the basis that Harris was entitled to reclassification of his conviction, but the result would deny the People the benefit of the negotiated plea agreement. Harris elected to proceed with his Proposition 47 petition and the court granted both Harris’s petition and the People’s motion. Harris filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the Court of Appeal considered after the California Supreme Court directed the court to issue an order to show cause. Held: Writ denied. When a change in law destroys a fundamental assumption underlying a plea bargain, the People are deprived of the benefit of the bargain and may withdraw from the plea. (People v. Collins (1978) 21 Cal.3d 208, 214-216.) This case, like Collins, involves a change in the law that undermined the “fundamental assumption” of the plea bargain—that the defendant would serve a six-year prison term. The court distinguished Doe v. Harris (2013) 57 Cal.4th 64, which recently held that a plea agreement is “deemed to incorporate and contemplate not only the existing law but the reserve power of the state to amend the law.” The Court of Appeal determined that this rule is limited to situations where the law changes with respect to “unbargained-for statutory consequences of a conviction.”

Dismissed charges can be reinstated and defendant’s sentencing exposure is not limited to six years. The Court of Appeal also concluded that the People were entitled to reinstatement of the previously dismissed charges based on Collins. To guide the trial court in subsequent proceedings, the court also considered whether Harris’s sentencing exposure was limited to the six years that he agreed to as part of his plea bargain. The court determined that his exposure was not limited. Although the defendant in Collins was entitled to preserve the benefit of his bargain, the plea agreement in that case was undermined by external events and not the defendant’s repudiation of the deal. Here, Proposition 47 did not void Harris’s plea agreement but only rendered it voidable at his option. Having effectively repudiated the plea deal by filing a Proposition 47 petition, “the plea agreement is deemed to be rescinded, and the parties are returned to the status quo ante.” [Editor’s Note: There is now a split of authority on this issue because T.W. v. Superior Court (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 646, reached the opposite conclusion. Mosk, J. dissented, arguing that T.W. should be followed, that Doe controlled, and that Collins is distinguishable.]