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State v. Stewart

Supreme Court of West Virginia

January 14, 2019

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Megan J. Stewart, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Pocahontas County 13-F-42(D)

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Megan J. Stewart, by counsel Eric M. Francis, appeals the Circuit Court of Pocahontas County's December 14, 2017, order dismissing her criminal proceedings following her successful completion of a drug court program. The State of West Virginia, by counsel Scott E. Johnson, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the court erred in refusing to expunge her underlying convictions from her criminal record, thus depriving her of the benefit of the bargain of the plea agreement at issue.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In August of 2013, petitioner was indicted for multiple crimes related to the transportation of controlled substances into a correctional facility. In January of 2014, petitioner entered into a plea agreement whereby she was permitted to participate in drug court in exchange for her entry of guilty pleas to both counts in the indictment. The plea agreement contained the following language:

RESOLUTION OF CHARGES: [Petitioner] will plead guilty as charged to the felony offense of Transporting a Controlled Substance into a State Correctional Facility and Conspiracy to Commit a Felony as contained within the indictment charging [petitioner]. The parties will jointly recommend that the Court delay sentencing on [petitioner's] guilty plea until [petitioner] successfully completes, or is otherwise discharged, from the Drug Court Program, contingent upon her acceptance in Drug Court in Raleigh County or in any other county accessible to her home county of Wyoming. The parties further resolve and recommend that, if successful in the aforementioned program, [petitioner] may introduce evidence thereof in mitigation of punishment by the Court at a subsequent sentencing hearing. The State of West Virginia believes that although the [petitioner] Megan J. Stewart committed the felonies as charged and the State of West Virginia believes that should this matter proceed to trial that Ms. Stewart would be convicted upon jury trial; the State of West Virginia likewise believes that there were special and extenuating circumstances involving Ms. Stewart's participation in the events which gave rise to the charges herein and the State believes that the discharge of her sentence in the manner set forth in this agreement is in the best interests of the [petitioner] and the public's interest in the just administration of the law, and that the State believes that the public interest would not be served by the confinement of Megan Stewart to an incarceration term in the regional jail nor in the penitentiary. If [petitioner] is discharged, or voluntarily withdraws, from the Drug Court program prior to successful graduation, this matter shall be returned to the active docket and jurisdiction of this Court, and the Court may proceed with sentencing. Furthermore, it is understood and acknowledged by [petitioner] that a discharge or voluntary withdrawal from the Drug Court is not sufficient cause to withdraw [petitioner]'s plea, and [petitioner] hereby waives any right to move to withdraw the plea as a result of any discharge or voluntary withdrawal from Drug Court. In the event that the plea is permitted to be withdrawn for any other reason, the State may reinstitute any criminal charges pending against [petitioner] at the time this agreement was entered.

         The plea agreement also plainly stated that "[t]his written agreement constitutes the entire agreement between the State and [petitioner] in this matter."

         By order entered in February of 2014, the circuit court[1] accepted petitioner's guilty pleas and ordered that, pursuant to the plea agreement, petitioner would be "transferred to the jurisdiction of the Wyoming County Drug Court which is currently being implemented. . . ." The circuit court further ordered that "upon termination or completion of the Drug Court Program by the [petitioner], the [petitioner] shall be returned to the jurisdiction of this Court for final sentencing."

         However, at a hearing in December of 2014, the circuit court noted that Wyoming County's drug court program was not yet operational. As such, the circuit court proceeded to sentence petitioner to a term of incarceration of two to ten years for her conviction of one count of transporting controlled substances into a state correctional facility and a term of incarceration of one to five years for her conviction of conspiracy, said sentences to run concurrently. Further, the circuit court specifically ruled that it would "defer or delay the imposition of this sentence" until a later hearing date, at which point petitioner would be required to "demonstrat[e] . . . first a seriousness about dealing with [her] history of drug use, and secondly mak[e] out a case for some alternative sentence program." But, as the circuit court reiterated, "as far as I can determine, there is no alternative sentence in Wyoming County. . . ."

         In February of 2015, the parties came on for a hearing, during which petitioner informed the circuit court that she recently moved to Summers County, West Virginia, and that the drug court program in that county was willing to accept her. The circuit court set a deadline of February 6, 2015, at which point petitioner would be required to self-report to the regional jail to begin serving her sentence if she had not yet secured placement in the Summers County drug court program. That deadline was later extended to February 20, 2015. Petitioner was able to secure her placement in the program and thereafter participated in the program for the next two years.

         In February of 2017, petitioner was released from the Summers County drug court program after her successful completion of that program. That same month, the circuit court[2]conducted a dispositional hearing following petitioner's release. During the hearing, petitioner requested that "the original drug court agreement be honored" by permitting her to withdraw her guilty pleas and dismissing the case. According to petitioner, "it was the representation of the former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney that the felony charges would be dismissed" after her successful completion of the drug court program. During the hearing, the State agreed that petitioner should be entitled to dismissal of the charges against her. In fact, the prosecuting attorney, although not personally involved in the formation of the plea agreement at issue, indicated that "the State's understanding the whole time" was that petitioner would have the charges against her dismissed entirely. However, the circuit court disagreed with this interpretation of the written plea agreement and indicated that it specified only that petitioner would be permitted to discharge her sentence by way of participating in drug court as an alternative sentence to incarceration. Due to the lengthy procedural history of the matter, the circuit court continued the hearing to give the parties additional time to address the issue.

         In October of 2017, the circuit court held another dispositional hearing, during which petitioner presented testimony from Robert Martin, the former assistant prosecuting attorney who entered into the plea agreement with petitioner. During Mr. Martin's testimony, the circuit court asked the following: "What was the intent of the parties [to the plea agreement] based upon [petitioner's] success or lack of success in drug court? Do you recall?" Mr. Martin responded: "No, I don't." Following this hearing, petitioner filed a motion for the circuit court to enter a "corrective order" in regard to the acceptance of the original plea agreement that would allow petitioner to "receive the benefit of the plea bargain that she has fulfilled." Specifically, petitioner again requested that the circuit court permit her to withdraw her guilty pleas and have the charges against her dismissed.

         Thereafter, the circuit court entered an order denying petitioner's motion. Relying on Rule 32(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure and this Court's holding in State v. Harlow, 176 W.Va. 559, 346 S.E.2d 350 (1986), the circuit court found that "after a Defendant has been sentenced, a motion for withdrawal of a plea of guilty may only be set aside on direct appeal or by petition under West Virginia Code § 53-4A-1." Because petitioner in this matter had previously been sentenced in January of 2015, the circuit court found that it lacked jurisdiction to permit withdrawal of the guilty pleas. Moreover, the circuit court found that, although it had authority to "amend its records to accord with the facts in both criminal and civil cases[, ]" it ultimately did not "find inconsistencies to justify the entry of a Corrected Order." In making this determination, the circuit court noted that the plain language of the plea agreement "contemplated the entry of . . . pleas, the acceptance of the pleas by the Court and that the [petitioner] may introduce evidence of her successful completion of Drug Court in mitigation of punishment . . . at a subsequent sentencing hearing." Importantly, the circuit court found that "[t]here is no provision in the Plea Agreement for a withdrawal of the [petitioner's] guilty pleas and dismissal of the case upon completion of Drug Court." Instead, the plea agreement "contemplated . . . that a sentence will be imposed based on the Court's consideration of mitigating circumstances." Given that petitioner had already been sentenced, had that sentence deferred, and successfully completed the drug court program, as contemplated, the circuit court found that petitioner was returned to its jurisdiction for final disposition. Further, as contemplated by the agreement, petitioner was permitted to introduce evidence of her successful completion of the drug court program. As such, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion.

         In November of 2017, the circuit court held a final hearing in the matter during which the State moved to dismiss the matter upon petitioner's successful completion of the drug court program. The circuit court found that petitioner "successfully completed the sentence previously imposed" and granted the State's motion. The circuit court memorialized ...


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