Opinion By: Justice Corrigan (unanimous decision)
Defendant who entered a plea agreement for a specified term was not required to obtain a certificate of probable cause to claim on appeal that a new law applied to him retroactively. Stamps pleaded guilty to one count of first degree burglary and admitted a prior serious felony conviction (Pen. Code, § 667, subd. (a)) for a stipulated nine-year prison sentence. He was sentenced in January 2018 according to the plea bargain, filed a notice of appeal, and sought a certificate of probable cause (CPC), which the trial court denied. In September 2018, the governor approved Senate Bill No. 1393 allowing a trial court to dismiss a serious felony enhancement in furtherance of justice. On appeal, Stamps raised a single claim that, in light of SB 1393, his case should be remanded to the trial court to exercise its discretion whether to strike the serious felony enhancement. The Attorney General countered that defendant’s appeal was not cognizable because he failed to obtain a CPC. The Court of Appeal concluded a certificate was not required and that SB 1393 applied retroactively to Stamps and remanded. The Attorney General petitioned for review. Held: Affirmed but remand order modified. When a defendant who pleaded guilty or no contest challenges an aspect of the sentence that he agreed to as an integral part of a plea agreement, a CPC is required to raise the claim on appeal. (Pen. Code, § 1237.5.) However, plea agreements are deemed to incorporate the reserve power of the state to amend the law or enact additional laws for the public good and in pursuance of public policy. (Doe v. Harris (2013) 57 Cal.4th 64, 71.) Thus, requiring the parties’ compliance with changes in the law made retroactive to them does not violate the terms of the plea agreement. Stamps’ appellate claim does not constitute an attack on the validity of his plea because the claim does not challenge his plea as defective when made. Therefore, he was not required to obtain a CPC.
Senate Bill No. 1393 applies retroactively to cases that were not final when the legislation became effective (January 1, 2019). Stamps argued that SB 1393 applies retroactively to his plea bargain. The Supreme Court agreed. SB 1393 removed provisions that prohibited a trial court from striking a serious felony enhancement in furtherance of justice under Penal Code section 1385. When the Legislature amends a statute so as to lessen the punishment it has obviously expressly determined that its former penalty was too severe and that a lighter punishment is proper as punishment for the commission of the prohibited act. In the absence of a savings clause providing only prospective relief or other clear intention concerning any retroactive effect, a legislative body ordinarily intends for ameliorative changes to the criminal law to extend as broadly as possible, distinguishing only as necessary between sentences that are final and sentences that are not. (People v. Buycks (2018) 5 Cal.5th 857, 881.) SB 1393 applies to defendant’s case retroactively because his judgment was not yet final. Eliminating the prior restriction on the court’s ability to strike a serious felony enhancement in furtherance of justice constitutes an ameliorative change within the meaning of In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740.
In a case where both parties entered a plea agreement for a specified term and Senate Bill No. 1393 applies retroactively, a limited remand may be appropriate to allow the defendant an opportunity to request relief; if the trial court is inclined to exercise its discretion to strike the enhancement, the prosecution is entitled to withdraw its assent to the agreement or the court may withdraw its approval. Stamps argued the proper remedy was to remand to the trial court to consider striking the serious felony enhancement while otherwise maintaining the remainder of the plea agreement. The Supreme Court disagreed. Where a plea is accepted by the prosecuting attorney and is approved by the court, the defendant cannot be sentenced on the plea to a more severe punishment than what is specified in the plea, and the court may not proceed as to the plea other than as specified in the plea. (Pen. Code, § 1192.5.) The legislative history of SB 1393 does not demonstrate any intent to overturn existing law regarding a court’s lack of authority to unilaterally modify a plea agreement. If the court indicates an inclination to exercise its discretion under section 1385, the prosecution may agree to modify the bargain to reflect the downward departure in the sentence. Barring such a modification agreement, the prosecutor is entitled to the same remedy as the defendantwithdrawal of assent to the plea agreement. Additionally, the trial court may withdraw its prior approval of the plea agreement if it decides to exercise its new discretion to strike the enhancement, as this could be considered a new circumstance in the case or simply a reevaluation of the propriety of the bargain itself. In light of these potential consequences to the plea agreement, it is ultimately Stamps’ choice whether he wishes to seek relief under SB 1393. A limited remand is appropriate here to allow him to make an informed decision about whether to seek relief and an opportunity to seek relief. [Editor’s Note: The court was persuaded by People v. Ellis (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 925, which addressed the proper remedy in a situation like this case, and the court disapproved People v. Wilson (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 408.]
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S255843.PDF