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Name: Kernan v. Cuero
Case #: 16–1468
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 11/06/2017
Subsequent History: 138 S.Ct. 4

After a California trial court permitted the prosecution to amend a criminal complaint to which the defendant had pleaded guilty, U.S. Supreme Court precedent did not clearly require the trial court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected. Cuero pleaded guilty to two felony offenses and admitted he had served four separate prison terms, one of which was a strike offense. His maximum punishment based on the plea was 14 years and 4 months in prison. Before Cuero’s sentencing hearing, the prosecution determined that another of Cuero’s four prior convictions qualified as a strike and that the signed plea form had erroneously listed only one strike. As a result of this second strike prior, Cuero faced a minimum punishment of 25 years to life. The prosecution requested to amend the criminal complaint to add the second strike and the trial court granted the motion, relying in part on Penal Code section 969.5, subdivision (a). The court also permitted Cuero to withdraw his guilty plea in light of the change. Cuero entered a new guilty plea to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a stipulated term of 25 years to life. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, and his state habeas petition was denied. The district court denied his federal habeas petition. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the state trial court had acted contrary to clearly established U.S. Supreme Court law by refusing to enforce the original plea agreement and that specific performance of the agreement was required. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed in a per curiam opinion. Even assuming the prosecution violated the Constitution when it moved to amend the complaint, the Ninth Circuit did not have authority to grant federal habeas relief because there is no U.S. Supreme Court precedent demanding specific performance as a remedy under the circumstances of this case. [Editor’s Note: The Ninth Circuit’s previous opinion in this case discusses why the prosecution’s amendment violated the federal Constitution. (See Cuero v. Cate (9th Cir. 2016) 827 F.3d 879, revd. sub nom. Kernan v. Cuero (2017) ___U.S.___ [138 S.Ct. 4].)]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: