Inmate seeking to enforce original plea agreement loses case before Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

An inmate who sought to have his original plea agreement enforced has lost his case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a per curiam opinion (PDF), the high court ruled Monday against Michael Cuero, report SCOTUSblog and Courthouse News Service.

The Supreme Court said its prior decisions didn’t clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence called for in the original plea agreement.

While on parole, Cuero was accused of striking a man with his car in an accident in 2005. Cuero was under the influence of methamphetamine and illegally carrying a gun at the time of the accident, prosecutors said.

Cuero pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm and causing bodily injury while driving under the influence, which carried a maximum 14-year sentence. The guilty plea acknowledged Cuero had served four separate prison terms, one of which qualified as a strike under California’s three-strikes law.

Prosecutors sought to amend the complaint before sentencing to assert that one of the other prior convictions also served as a strike, bringing the strike total to two. The second strike meant Cuero could qualify for a minimum 25-year sentence. The trial court allowed the amended complaint over Cuero’s objection, and Cuero pleaded guilty to the second complaint. He was sentenced to a stipulated term of 25 years to life.

The conviction and sentence were affirmed in a state appeal, and Cuero sought habeas relief. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered specific performance of the original sentence. The Supreme Court reversed.

Even if the state violated the Constitution by seeking to amend the complaint, Supreme Court precedent didn’t clearly establish the remedy of specific performance, the high court said.

The Supreme Court noted it was deciding the case under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The law allows federal courts to grant habeas relief to state prisoners when a state court decision is contrary to, or involves an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as established by Supreme Court precedent.

“We conclude that the 9th Circuit erred when it held that ‘federal law’ as interpreted by this court ‘clearly’ establishes that specific performance is constitutionally required here,” the Supreme Court said. “We decide no other issue in this case.”

The case is Kernan v. Cuero.

Sixth paragraph corrected at 2:50 p.m. to state that prosecutors sought to bring the string total to two.

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