LINCOLN — A Columbus, Neb., man serving prison time for possessing child pornography will be resentenced after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors violated the terms of his plea bargain.
The opinion, released Friday, faulted Platte County prosecutors for promising a defendant probation and then asking the judge to order a prison term.
The ruling contained an additional opinion from two Supreme Court judges who reached the same conclusion as the majority but for significantly different reasons.
The case involves Angel Landera, 20, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to 10 felony counts after digital photographs and child porn videos were found on his laptop computer. He is serving a state prison sentence of 2½ to four years.
Prosecutors charged him with 22 felonies. In a plea bargain, they agreed to dismiss 12 of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea to 10. The prosecution also agreed to recommend a sentence of probation.
Before sentencing, Landera underwent a 90-day evaluation to determine his psychological state and the extent of his sexual attraction to children. When prosecutors read the evaluation, they concluded Landera was a threat to reoffend and should be incarcerated rather than put on probation.
The Nebraska Court of Appeals ruled the state violated the terms of the plea bargain by withdrawing the probation recommendation and arguing for prison time. The Appeals Court determined that the prosecution “implied” to Landera it would not recommend prison time.
In the Supreme Court appeal, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Erin Tangeman argued that while the prosecution agreed to recommend probation, it did not specifically say such a recommendation would preclude the possibility of a prison sentence.
The law allows prosecutors to seek up to a year of confinement in a county jail as a condition of probation.
The high court determined, however, the prosecution undermined the plea agreement because it argued that Landera was not a candidate for probation and needed to serve time in prison rather than jail. The prosecutors essentially reneged on their offer, which violated the explicit agreement in the plea bargain.
“We find that the state violated its plea agreement with Landera not by recommending incarceration as a condition of probation but by effectively arguing for incarceration instead of probation,” the high court ruled.
The Supreme Court said the lower court reached the correct conclusion for the wrong reason. The high court ruling found that parties in plea bargains should be held to terms and conditions to which they specifically agreed, rather than interpreting what is implied by one side or another.
Supreme Court Judges William Connolly and Michael McCormack agreed the prosecution violated the plea bargain, but for a reason different from what the majority found. They said the courts must consider whether a defendant acted upon what he or she thought was implied by an offer from the prosecution.
By having a change of heart about Landera's sentence, the prosecution engaged in “exactly the kind of government conduct that the due process clause (of the U.S. Constitution) prohibits,” Connolly wrote.
“The majority opinion will raise serious constitutional questions whether a defendant has voluntarily and knowingly entered a plea of guilty, particularly if the court did not advise the defendant that it could confine him or her to a longer period in jail than what the defendant had agreed to in a plea agreement,” he wrote.
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