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Name: People v. Superior Court (Sanchez)
Case #: C071008
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 3 DCA
Opinion Date: 01/29/2014

Trial court erred by denying the prosecution’s request to vacate a plea bargain based on a mutual mistake of law and by imposing a sentence other than what was bargained for. Appellant pled no contest to one count of attempted murder in exchange for dismissal of other violent felonies and a stipulated sentence of 25 years to life. Prior to sentencing, the prosecution discovered that the authorized punishment for attempted murder is life with the possibility of parole, which would set the minimum term at 7 years, rather than the agreed-upon 25 years. The trial court denied the prosecution’s request to either specifically enforce the 25-years-to-life term or vacate the plea, and sentenced appellant to a term of life with the possibility of parole. The prosecution filed a petition for writ of mandate to vacate the plea. Held: Petition granted. A negotiated plea agreement is a form of contract and, once the court approves the plea bargain, it cannot change the agreement without the consent of the parties. The sentence the trial court imposed here was outside the limits of the bargain and deprived the prosecution of the benefit it negotiated. Rather than altering the material term of the bargain addressing the sentence, the trial court should have withdrawn its approval of the agreement when it recognized its illegality and set aside the plea. Because the plea agreement was based on a mutual mistake of law concerning a material term of the negotiation, the agreement may be rescinded. The court rejected appellant’s contention that the prosecution, having drafted the illegal bargain, must bear the consequences. While ambiguities in standard form contracts are construed against the drafter, the bargain here was unambiguous in setting forth the terms to be implemented. Disagreeing with People v. Velasquez (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 503, the court rejected appellant’s contention that the prosecutor’s mistake must be held against the People. No double jeopardy problem resulted with the remand because there is a valid basis to vacate the plea.

Writ of mandate relief was available to the People. Initially, the Court of Appeal summarily denied the prosecution’s petition for writ of mandate. The Supreme Court granted the People’s petition for review and directed the appellate court to issue an order to show cause why relief should not be granted. In his return to the order to show cause, appellant argued that mandate was not available regardless of whether there was an error. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument. Mandate was available because the Supreme Court’s direction to issue an order to show cause established that there was no other adequate remedy at law and the petition should be decided on its merits.