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Guilty Pleas – Plea Bargains – Breach: By Prosecutor – Sentencing Recommendation by Police Officer Exceeding Bargained Length

State v. Leonard C. Matson, 2003 WI App 253
For Matson: Michael Yovovich, SPD, Madison Appellate


¶13. Matson argues his due process rights were violated when Alstadt, the investigating detective in this case, gave a sentencing recommendation that undermined the State’s recommendation, in effect, breaching the plea agreement. The State counters that Alstadt was not a party to the plea agreement and thus his letter did not violate Matson’s due process rights. We agree with Matson that Alstadt’s letter constituted a breach of the plea agreement.

¶23. Because an investigative officer is the investigating arm of the prosecutor’s office, principles of fairness and agency require us to bind the investigating officer to the prosecutor’s bargain. When a defendant pleads guilty to a crime, he waives significant rights, including the right to a jury trial, the right to confront his accusers, the right to present witnesses in his defense, the right to remain silent and the right to have the charges against him proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If the guilty plea is part of a plea bargain, the State is obligated to comply with any promises it makes. When a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled.

¶24. The cases cited by the State, both from within and outside of Wisconsin, generally deal with probation or parole officers providing statements or sentencing recommendations in the context of a presentence report and are easily distinguishable….

¶25. Investigating officers are so integral to the prosecutorial effort that to permit one to undercut a plea agreement would, in effect, permit the State to breach its promise. If the prosecutor is obligated to comply with plea bargain promises, then the prosecutor’s investigating officers may not undercut those promises by making inconsistent recommendations. We conclude that statements of the investigating officer for purposes of the sentencing hearing are the statements of the prosecutor. A prosecutor may not undercut a plea agreement directly or by words or conduct. Nor may he do so by proxy. “The State may not accomplish by indirect means what it promised not to do directly ….” State v. Williams, 2002 WI 1, ¶42, 249 Wis. 2d 492, 637 N.W.2d 733 (citation omitted).

¶27. We acknowledge that circuit courts are not rubber stamps and do not blindly accept or adopt sentencing recommendations from any particular source. State v. Johnson, 158 Wis. 2d 458, 465, 463 N.W.2d 352 (Ct. App. 1990). However, it matters not what sentence the circuit court would have imposed in the absence of Alstadt’s letter; the letter constituted a material and substantial breach of the plea agreement. Prejudice is presumed and always results from such a manifest injustice. State v. Smith, 207 Wis. 2d 258, 281, 558 N.W.2d 379 (1997). Our conclusion precludes any need to consider what the sentencing judge would have done had the breach not occurred. Id.

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