A plea deal is an often used tool in Florida criminal cases that can save both the prosecution and defense time and money and, perhaps, offer a criminal defendant lesser penalties in exchange for admitting to (or at least agreeing not to contest) certain charges. In State v. Ortiz, however, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal reminds that once a person accepts a plea deal, it is extremely difficult to rescind the deal, even where it results in an “illegal” judgment against the defendant.
In 1996, Pedro Ortiz was charged with the purchase and unlawful possession of marijuana, a third degree felony and second degree misdemeanor, respectively. Pursuant to a plea deal with the state prosecutor, Ortiz plead no contest – meaning that he would not fight the charges, although he neither admitted nor denied them – in exchange for adjudication on the charges being withheld and his sentence suspended.
More than 14 years later, Ortiz filed a motion seeking to vacate his no contest plea, arguing that the suspended sentence was illegal. The trial court agreed and vacated the conviction.
Citing the state supreme court’s 1958 ruling in Helton v. State for the proposition that a criminal sentence may be suspended “only as an incident to probation,” the court of appeals found that Ortiz’s suspended sentence was in fact unlawful. Furthermore, according to the court, a trial court cannot resentence a person who has already served an “illegal” sentence because to do so would violate the Double Jeopardy clause, which generally protects a person from being charged for the same crime twice.
Nevertheless, the court reversed the trial court’s decision to vacate Ortiz’s conviction. “Where a defendant has already served his sentence and he has reaped the benefit of an illegal sentence, he is estopped from challenging the sentence, especially in the context of a negotiated plea,” the court held. Since Ortiz’s plea deal allowed him to enjoy a suspended sentence without being subject to incarceration or probation, the court concluded that he clearly reaped the benefit of the sentence. Thus, “[b]ecause the defendant accepted the terms of the plea offered and has enjoyed the benefits of the bargain,” the court reinstated the 1996 judgment.
Despite Ortiz’s plea bargain, a drug possession conviction can result in serious consequences, including imprisonment, significant fines and loss of one’s driver’s license for two years. For example, possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana is a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana, or possession of other controlled substances (e.g. cocaine, heroin, meth or ecstasy) is a third degree felony with a maximum sentence of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
If you or someone you love is facing criminal drug possession charges in Florida, please call Anidjar & Levine P.A. toll-free at 800-747-3733 or fill out and submit our online Contact Us form to schedule a free, confidential consultation with an experienced South Florida criminal defense attorney. We look forward to providing you with quality, compassionate legal representation.