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State v. Westwood

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

September 12, 2019


          Pennell, J.

         Dahndre Westwood was charged with several felony offenses related to a sexual assault he committed at age 14. Mr. Westwood entered into plea negotiations with the State and settled on a resolution that would have allowed him to plead guilty to a reduced set of original charges. Although the victim disagreed with this resolution, the State justified the agreement based on Mr. Westwood's young age.

         The trial court was unimpressed with the parties' proposed resolution. It rejected the plea agreement as inconsistent with prosecutorial standards and it refused to allow entry of Mr. Westwood's plea. The case then proceeded to a jury trial and Mr. Westwood was convicted of several felonies.

         On appeal, the parties both assign error to the trial court's rejection of Mr. Westwood's proposed plea and plea agreement. We concur with this assessment. Two distinct legal errors tainted the trial court's rejection of the parties' negotiated settlement. First, the court did not distinguish between a proffered plea and a proposed plea agreement. Under current statute and rules, Mr. Westwood should have been afforded the opportunity to enter a plea regardless of the merits of his plea agreement. Second, respect for constitutional separation of powers required the trial court to defer to the State's tenable position that its plea agreement was consistent with prosecutorial standards. This was not done.

         We remand Mr. Westwood's case to allow for entry of a plea pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement.


         Given the narrow issue addressed in this opinion, only a brief recitation of facts is warranted. In 2012, A.B. was attacked at knifepoint by a male individual who broke into her home. The individual attempted to rape A.B., but she fended him off. After the individual fled the scene, A.B. called 911 and went to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) collected from A.B. led the police to 14-year- old Dahndre Westwood. Mr. Westwood was arrested and A.B. made a positive identification of Mr. Westwood from two photos taken of him the day he was arrested.

         The State charged Mr. Westwood with attempted first degree rape, first degree burglary, first degree assault, second degree assault, and indecent liberties. Mr. Westwood was 17 years old at the time charges were filed. The juvenile court declined jurisdiction.

         Prior to trial, the parties arrived at a proposed plea agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, Mr. Westwood would plead guilty to the pending count of indecent liberties, along with a charge of third degree assault pending in a different case. The remaining charges would be dismissed.

         The plea agreement was presented to the trial court at a pretrial motion hearing. The State explained it had proposed the agreement, despite A.B.'s opposition, because Mr. Westwood was 14 years old at the time of the offense and recent case law from the Supreme Court indicated that youth needed to be taken into consideration in case disposition. The State submitted that the plea agreement was reasonable and would result in Mr. Westwood being "under the thumb" of the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board for the rest of his life. 1 Report of Proceedings (Sept. 18, 2017) at 6.

         After recessing to consider the terms of the proposed plea agreement, the court directed the parties to RCW 9.94A.450, the statute articulating prosecutorial standards for plea dispositions in criminal cases:

STANDARD: (1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, a defendant will normally be expected to plead guilty to the charge or charges which adequately describe the nature of his or her criminal conduct or go to trial.
(2) In certain circumstances, a plea agreement with a defendant in exchange for a plea of guilty to a charge or charges that may not fully describe the nature of his or her criminal conduct may be necessary and in the public interest. Such situations may include the following:
(a) Evidentiary problems which make conviction on the original charges doubtful;
(b) The defendant's willingness to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution of others whose criminal conduct is more serious or represents a greater public threat;
(c) A request by the victim when it is not the result of pressure from the defendant;
(d) The discovery of facts which mitigate the seriousness of the defendant's conduct;
(e) The correction of errors in the initial charging decision;
(f) The defendant's history with respect to criminal activity;
(g) The nature and seriousness of the offense or offenses charged; (h) The probable effect on witnesses.

         The court began with subsection (1) of the statute. The State agreed that its proposed plea agreement did not totally describe the nature of Mr. Westwood's criminal conduct. Thus, the court moved on to subsection (2). The trial court reviewed (a)-(e) of subsection (2) and (g)-(h). After brief discussions with counsel for the State, the court determined that none of the aforementioned provisions supported the parties' plea agreement. The court did not inquire as to (2)(f), which addresses a "defendant's history with respect to criminal activity." Id.

         After hearing from the parties regarding RCW 9.94A.450, the trial court took another recess. Upon reconvening, the judge announced he was denying the parties' requested resolution. The case was then set for trial. A jury subsequently convicted Mr. Westwood of attempted first degree rape, first degree burglary, and first degree assault. He was acquitted of indecent liberties.

         Mr. Westwood appeals.


         Plea bargaining: the historical and legal context

         Plea bargaining is "an essential component of the administration of justice." Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257, 260, 92 S.Ct. 495, 30 L.Ed.2d 427 (1971). The benefits of plea bargains include finality, acceptance of responsibility, preservation of resources, and the exercise of mercy. Plea bargaining is widely considered an acceptable component of criminal practice. But this was not always so. Until the United States Supreme Court's 1971 decision in Santobello, plea bargaining was viewed with skepticism. "[I]t was a sub rosa process shrouded in secrecy and deliberately concealed by participating defendants, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and even judges." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 76, 97 S.Ct. 1621, 52 L.Ed.2d 136 (1977). Reforms beginning in the 1970s brought plea bargaining out of the shadows by clarifying and codifying plea bargain procedures. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11 advisory committee's note to 1974 amendments, 62 F.R.D. 271, 277-86 (1974). In 1981, Washington joined the national reform effort by establishing procedures for judicial approval of plea agreements pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), chapter 9.94A RCW. See former RCW 9.94A.080 (1981), recodified as RCW 9.94A.421; former RCW 9.94A.090 (1981), recodified as RCW 9.94A.431.

         The SRA confers explicit approval on the plea bargaining process. Under the SRA, the prosecution may "do any of the ...

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