Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence July 8, 2010 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-02-CR-0007063-2008
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bender, J.
BEFORE: BENDER, J., DONOHUE, J., and STRASSBURGER, J.*fn1
Appellant, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appeals from the judgment of sentence imposed on Appellee, Lamar Mebane. The Commonwealth contends that the trial court erred in finding that Mebane was entitled to enforcement of a plea bargain that had been offered and accepted but where the prosecutor attempted to renege prior to presentation of the agreement to the court. The Commonwealth also asserts that MeBane's sentence was illegal as it did not conform to an otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentencing provision. After careful review, we affirm.
Police arrested Mebane following a traffic stop and the Commonwealth ultimately charged him with several drug related offenses.*fn2 On July 21, 2008, Appellee filed a motion to suppress the contraband found on his person, and a hearing was conducted to adjudicate the matter on February 1, 2010, before the Honorable Edward J. Borkowski in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. After the hearing, Judge Borkowski encouraged the parties to negotiate a plea agreement and a trial date was scheduled for July 8, 2010. On February 5, 2010, the court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (hereinafter "the Ruling") granting in part, and denying in part, the suppression motion. Neither party was officially served or otherwise provided with copies of the Ruling, nor was either party given notice that the court had reached a decision on the matter.
On or before March 16, 2010, the prosecutor extended a plea offer to Mebane through Mebane's attorney. The terms of the offer were that the Commonwealth would waive imposition of a mandatory sentence*fn3 and Mebane would serve a term of 11 ½ - 23 months' incarceration. According to the agreement, Mebane would also be permitted alternative housing and/or work release. The offer was accepted by Mebane and the acceptance was communicated to the prosecutor by defense counsel. At the time of the acceptance, neither party was aware of the court's ruling on the suppression motion.
Defense counsel attempted to schedule a plea hearing after he communicated the acceptance to the prosecutor; however, the Minute Clerk did not schedule a new date because the trial had already been scheduled for July 8, 2010.
At some point after the plea offer had been accepted, the prosecutor asked Judge Borkowski's secretary if a ruling had been issued on the suppression motion. Overhearing the question, the court reporter who had transcribed the Ruling told the prosecutor that the Judge had issued a ruling and showed the prosecutor a copy of the transcription she had taken. The prosecutor took no action to inform defense counsel of either the existence or content of the Ruling.
When the parties appeared together on July 8, 2010, the prosecutor reneged on the plea agreement. The trial court determined that fundamental fairness entitled Mebane to the benefit of the bargain, finding that although "the prosecutor may have inadvertently obtained ..." the Ruling, he "nonetheless vulpinely used ... information regarding the Trial Court's ruling prior to its disclosure to defense counsel." Trial Court Opinion (TCO), 2/27/12, at 8 - 9. Hence, the court accepted Mebane's plea and sentenced him in accordance with the plea agreement.
The Commonwealth now appeals and presents the following question for our review:
Whether the trial court erred in finding that [A]ppellee was entitled to enforcement of an offered sentencing plea agreement, in contravention of the mandatory sentencing statute, where the prosecutor had initially made an offer to waive the mandatory in exchange for appellee's plea, but the offer was withdrawn prior to presentation of the plea to the court?
Commonwealth's Brief, at 5.
It is well recognized that the guilty plea and the frequently concomitant plea bargain are valuable implements in our criminal justice system. The disposition of criminal charges by agreement between the prosecutor and the accused, ... is an essential component of the administration of justice. Properly administered, it is to be encouraged. In this Commonwealth, the practice of plea bargaining is generally regarded favorably, and is legitimized and governed by court rule.
Commonwealth v. Parsons, 969 A.2d 1259, 1267 (Pa. Super. 2009) (en banc) (quoting Commonwealth v. Schmoyer, 421 A.2d 786, 789 (Pa. Super. 1980)).
One of these rules, Pa.R.Crim.P. 590, reads in pertinent part:
(1) Pleas shall be taken in open court.
(2) A defendant may plead not guilty, guilty, or, with the consent of the judge, nolo contendere. If the defendant refuses to plead, the judge shall enter a plea of not guilty on the defendant's behalf.
(3) The judge may refuse to accept a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and shall not accept it unless the judge determines after inquiry of the defendant that the plea is voluntarily and ...