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Court of Appeals Requires DA to Honor Plea Deal Made by his Predecessor

April 27, 2015

In Syms v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the District Attorney’s office was contractually bound by a plea agreement made between a previous District Attorney and the defendant.

Thus, the Court reversed the trial court and held that the defendant’s motion to enforce the plea agreement should have been granted.

The defendant was charged with possession of oxycodone with intent to distribute, two counts of using a communication device during a felony, and selling alprazolam, a Schedule IV controlled substance. The defendant’s attorney reached an agreement with the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case. Under that agreement, the State would not seek recidivist punishment and would recommend a ten-year total sentence. Defense counsel and the State both confirmed they had reached a plea agreement at a calendar call. The Assistant District Attorney testified that he considered the parties’ agreement to be binding.

The case was continued twice. In the meantime, a new District Attorney was sworn in, the ADA resigned and a new ADA was assigned to the case. The new ADA informed the defense attorney that the State would not honor the plea agreement because the new DA instituted a policy against waiving recidivist sentencing. The defendant moved to enforce the plea agreement, the trial court denied the motion, and the defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeals stated that “promises made by the district attorney are binding on his successor to the extent that they are valid and enforceable.” In determining whether the agreement was enforceable, the Court turned to general principles of contract law. The Court noted that a contract is enforceable if the parties have reached agreement on the essential terms.

The essential terms of this agreement were the term of the sentence and the fact that the State would not seek recidivist punishment. The Court held that the agreement was “clearly made” however, the State changed its mind and no longer wished to honor it. Thus, the Court concluded that the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the plea agreement.

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