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Small v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

April 18, 2018



          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Charlotte County; George C. Richards, Judge.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Christopher E. Cosden, Special Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Cornelius C. Demps, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

          CRENSHAW, Judge.

         Jacqueline Small appeals her convictions for sale of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. Small initially pleaded no contest to the sale charge in exchange for the State nolle prossing the possession charge, but she later withdrew her plea and proceeded to trial on both charges. She now contends that the trial court committed fundamental error by allowing the State to proceed to trial on the possession charge, which had been nolle prossed, without filing a new information. Because the trial court did not err in allowing the State to proceed on the original information after Small had withdrawn her negotiated plea, we affirm.

         A plea agreement is a contract between a defendant and the State, to which ordinary rules of contract law apply. See Churchill v. State, 219 So.3d 14, 18 (Fla. 2017) (citing Garcia v. State, 722 So.2d 905, 907 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998)). It is a well-established principle of contract law that one party's material breach relieves the other party of his obligations under the contract. See Green Tree Servicing, LLC v. Milam, 177 So.3d 7, 14 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015). Accordingly, this court has recognized on numerous occasions, that a defendant cannot enforce a plea agreement against the State after withdrawing a plea. See, e.g., Taylor v. State, 132 So.3d 882, 885 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014) (reasoning that defendant could withdraw his plea, but could not enforce the plea agreement against the State); Ciambrone v. State, 938 So.2d 550, 553 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (remanding to give defendant an opportunity to withdraw her plea but noting that "if she does so, neither she nor the State will be bound by the plea agreement"); Cornett v. State, 922 So.2d 297, 299 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) ("If [defendant] 'decides to withdraw his plea and not be bound by the plea agreement, the State, too, will not be bound by the plea agreement.' " (quoting Goins v. State, 889 So.2d 918, 919 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004))); see also Guynn v. State, 861 So.2d 449, 450-51 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003) ("The negotiated plea agreement placed obligations on both parties. . . . Having accepted the benefits of the bargain . . . the defendant cannot, any more than any other contracting party, be relieved of the burden of his bargain."). Hence, withdrawal from a plea agreement is a breach that excuses the State from its obligations under the agreement.

         Of greater significance in this context is the fact that "[w]hen a plea of guilty or nolo contendere is withdrawn and accepted by the court, it is as if the plea had never been entered ab initio." State v. Vasquez, 918 So.2d 1016, 1017 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (quoting Williams v. State, 762 So.2d 990, 991 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000)); see also Whitaker v. State, 881 So.2d 80, 82 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004) ("When a defendant successfully challenges and is permitted to withdraw a plea of nolo contendere or guilty which was entered as a result of a plea bargain, the negotiated plea bargain is 'abrogated.' " (emphasis omitted)); Williams, 762 So.2d at 991. "The incentive to settle a case by plea bargaining or by an agreement not requiring a plea would quickly disappear if one party could renege on an agreement without any consequence." State v. Simons, 22 So.3d 734, 737 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009); see also Bell v. State, 262 So.2d 244, 245 (Fla. 4th DCA 1972). Allowing a defendant to renege on an agreement without consequence is certain to open the Pandora's Box the dissent brings up, by allowing for gamesmanship through the entry and withdrawal of pleas. But, permitting the State "to proceed as if a plea had never been entered, " King v. State, 870 So.2d 69, 70 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003), forecloses the abuses the dissent's position invites.

         As such, once the court permitted Small to withdraw her plea to the sale charge, the bargained for nolle prosse was likewise withdrawn, and the status quo ante restored. Small, however, insists that because the State had entered the nolle prosse, it was required to refile an information charging her with possession. We disagree. "[T]he only purpose of an indictment [or information] is to apprise a defendant of the charge against him. . . . An indictment or information . . . is nothing more or less than the vehicle by which the state charges that a crime has been committed." Dougan v. State, 470 So.2d 697, 701 (Fla. 1985). Having been properly charged prior to entering the plea agreement, Small was fully aware of the charges against her, as well as the State's intention to prosecute her on these two offenses and thus-contrary to the dissent's position-she was accorded due process. As such, refiling the information would serve no meaningful purpose here. The withdrawal of the plea resulted in a return to the status quo that existed before the plea agreement was made, and the State was entitled to "proceed as if a plea had never been entered." King, 870 So.2d at 70.

         Small's argument that everything after the filing of a nolle prosse is a nullity, is of little merit on these facts. That argument ignores the subtle distinctions attendant to whether the nolle prosse was pursuant to a plea agreement, as is the case here, or was entered by the State at its own discretion for any reason. "When, as in the present case, the plea agreement involves 'charge bargaining, ' if the plea is withdrawn the defendant must again face the original charge as it existed prior to the state's offer [to nolle prosse]." Fairweather v. State, 505 So.2d 653, 655 (Fla. 2d DCA 1987); Gonzales v. State, 766 So.2d 452, 454 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000) ("If the trial court permits the defendant to withdraw his plea, the State must be returned to the same position it was in before the plea agreement . . . .").

         After withdrawing her plea, Small was returned to the position she was in before entering the plea, facing charges of sale of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, which the State had properly charged before Small had entered her plea-a fact the dissent attaches little importance to. The State was merely proceeding on the charges in the original information when it resumed its prosecution of Small. Small was not denied due process or prejudiced by the course of the proceedings-caused solely by her entry and subsequent withdrawal of a plea-and the interests of justice do not warrant a contrary finding. See Baker v. State, 4 So.3d 758, 760 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) (explaining the standard for fundamental error). Accordingly, we affirm. Affirmed.

          LaROSE, C. J, Concurs with opinion.

          MORRIS, J., Dissents with opinion.

          LaROSE, Chief ...

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