For the third time in two weeks, a Gila County Superior Court judge did something unusual — he rejected plea agreements based on principle.
It happened twice on April 18 and again on Monday when Judge Peter Cahill said he was fed up with attorneys presenting plea agreements that forced him to accept sentencing caps.
While attorneys may have the authority to negotiate what charges a defendant pleads to, it is up to judges to determine precise sentencing lengths.
Two of the cases involved drunk driving, while the other included theft and forgery charges.
Prosecutors asked for mandatory probation in one case and five years of jail in another.
“I have been so dissatisfied with plea agreements presented,” Cahill told attorney Barry Standifird April 18 in court.
Cahill directed Standifird and the attorneys in two other cases to draw up new pleas that take out language limiting Cahill’s sentencing authority.
“I don’t like to be boxed in” to mandatory prison or probation terms, Cahill said Wednesday from his office.
While it is common for attorneys to meet and craft plea agreements that allow a defendant to plead to lesser charges, Cahill said it is frustrating when attorneys also try to force him into a sentencing length in those pleas.
For example, if a man is indicted on first-degree murder charges, but the county attorney’s office believes they can only convict for manslaughter, they can drop it to the lesser charge.
The county will then meet with the man’s attorney and normally draw up a plea agreement for the lesser charge. This guarantees a conviction for the county attorney’s office and usually means the defendant serves a shorter sentence than if a jury convicted him or her.
During negotiations, the defense attorney will often stipulate that their client will only plead if there is a guarantee of no jail time or some other condition.
While this practice is legal, it crosses into a judge’s authority, Cahill said.
Instead of a judge determining the length and type of sentence, the attorneys are predetermining this in the plea deal.
This limits a judge’s ability to sentence outside these predetermined parameters.
“Plea bargaining goes on and there is no way to stop it,” he said. “If I was a defense attorney, I would probably want some reassurance of what my client would get.”
While attorneys may want to guarantee sentence type and length, Cahill said “at some point too much is too much.”
Restrictive plea deals are not rejected enough, Cahill said.
The recent rejections are the first Cahill could recall making for some time.
In the first rejected case, Jeffrey David Vance faced charges of aggravated DUI and possession of narcotic drugs for sale. Standifird, Vance’s attorney, presented a plea deal with sentencing stipulations of five years in jail with no probation.
Cahill challenged Standifird on these restrictions. Standifird said based on Vance’s drug addiction and health, five years was an appropriate sentence.
Cahill rejected the plea and said he would determine an appropriate sentence length.
“I am starting over now judge,” Standifird said with the plea arrangement.
In a case following Vance, Paula Smith Weddel faced a charge of aggravated DUI. Cahill again rejected a plea agreement based on a predetermined sentencing length.
On Monday, Cahill rejected another plea, this time involving Angela Mae Gregg, who was charged with theft and 14 counts of forgery.
After Cahill rejected a plea agreement that mandated probation, attorneys quickly reached a new agreement that left sentencing open between 12 and 43 months in jail plus up to four years on probation.
Cahill accepted this plea and will sentence Gregg on May 31.
Attorneys need to keep plea agreements open, with sentencing length and type suggested, but not mandatory, Cahill said.
Weddel and Vance will stand before Cahill again on May 2.