Even though plea agreements are considered contracts, they can be changed when new laws are passed through legislation, according to a new ruling by the California Supreme Court. In John Doe v. Kamala Harris, the court determined the only time the state gives up its authority to change contracts through new laws is when a definite and explicit understanding exists between the contracting parties that the terms of the plea will remain fixed.
A dissenting opinion offered that subsequent legislation should not be allowed to “materially” affect plea agreements, particularly if the parties would not have entered into the agreement if they had known of the legislative changes.
In 1991, John Doe was charged with six counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child. In August 1991, he entered into a plea agreement to one count. Under the agreement, he was to receive probation, work furlough, fines, and have to register as a sex offender.
‘Terms of a plea agreement incorporate existing
law to the exclusion of any
retroactive amendments to the law’
At the time, the sex offender registration laws said that all registration information would only be open to inspection by law enforcement personnel. However, in 2004 the California Legislature enacted Megan’s Law, allowing the public to access the registration records, including those previously registered, thus retroactively changing sex offender registration rules.
In 2007, John Doe fi led a federal civil complaint, claiming that Megan’s Law violated his plea agreement under contract law.
The state District Court agreed and prohibited the attorney general from disclosing Doe’s information, ruling that Doe was not subject to post-conviction amendments to the registration requirements. The California attorney general appealed to the federal 9th Circuit, which asked the California Supreme Court to clarify some inconsistencies in prior related state rulings, to address “unsettled questions of California law.” The state Supreme Court only addressed whether the “terms of a plea agreement incorporate existing law to the exclusion of any retroactive amendments to the law…”
A decision is still pending from the federal appellate court on Doe’s specific petition, but for now, the law of the state allows such modification of plea agreements.
The case is S191948, 2013 Cal Lexis 5477, 7/1/2013.