Friday, August 20, 2010

Berman v. Cate (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 19, 2010)

I'm not saying that the Court of Appeal necessarily gets this one wrong. Maybe California pecedent really is this stark. Nonetheless, this seems totally bizarre to me.

Vincent Berman commits a crime. He enters into a plea deal. He pleads guilty, as well as waives credit for time served, in return for (1) three years in prison, and (2) no more than three years on parole.

Thost terms are expressly reflected on his written plea deal. They're expressly reflected on a checked box that says he'll be placed "on 3 years parole." They're orally confirmed by the trial court, which says "when you are released from prison you will be placed on parole. Probably a three-year term as far as parole is concerned." It's "probable" since, after all, that's the term of the deal, though the Parole Board can always shorten it, right? Given those express terms of the deal, he pleads guilty. And serves his years. And gets out.

After he's released, the Parole Board says: "Oh, wait. I know you expressly agreed to three years of parole. But we're making it five. Not for anything misconduct or anything else like that. But our reading of the statute is that it's a five year-minimum." But Berman responds: "I disagree, but regardless, that was my deal. Three years. Not five." But the Parole Board does not care.

So Berman files a petition in the trial court, and Judge Hopp (in Riverside) agrees with him. A deal is a deal. He's entitled to its enforcement. Moreover, it's not like we can just let Berman withdraw his plea instead, since he's already served his time at this point. So grants relief.

And the Court of Appeal reverses. Nope. He's got to serve five years. Since a three-year deal was not "authorized" by statute, and Berman didn't "prove" with particularized evidence that he expressly relied on the three-year parole part of the deal.

Except, of course, by the undisputed evidence that was the terms of the deal, both orally and in writing. Oh, and the fact that during parole, Berman's not allowed to live with his wife; moreover, is not allowed any contact whatsoever with his children. There's no "evidence" that adding an extra two years to the period you can't see your family would at all matter to you.

This just seems facially wrong to me. It's not that I can't understand the reasoning that Justice Miller articulates. I can. But it still just seems like an incredibly, overly harsh result.

Plus, the divergence between what the Court of Appeal does here and what I'm confident it would do in any other context seems extreme.

Imagine the following hypothetical. There's a new television show called "Extreme Survivor." On the theory that existing reality shows are far too lame. A Matthew "Herman" decides to do the show. He signs a written contract, the express terms of which are that he will receive $1 million if he: (1) spends three years doing labor isolated with other reality contestants of the producer's choosing; say, at a place called "Prizin;" and (2) thereafter, for three additional years, has no contact with his family -- perhaps because that's when the producer plans to produce a live special called "Back to the Family" which will record Herman's return. The terms of this contract are not only in writing, but are also confirmed on videotape, with the producer saying that after Pirzin, Herman will "probably" have no contact with his family for three years. (The special could be moved up, after all.) That's the deal that Herman signs.

After Herman spends his three years in Prizin, the producer calls him up and says: "Oh, sorry, Herman. The special is actually in five years, not three. So you'll have to spend the extra two years apart from your family if you want the deal. My bad; indeed, the network never authorized me to make a three-year deal."

If Herman brought a lawsuit to enforce the three-year provision, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Court of Appeal would grant him relief. Even if Herman was a child molester. Even if a three-year deal was unauthorized. Even if Herman did not expressly say that he wouldn't have gone on the show if the deal was five years instead of three. It's part of the contract. Herman did his part. That's all he has to do. No way -- none -- that a California court would make Herman spend the extra two years.

Yet that's precisely what the Court of Appeal does here to Berman. Notwithstanding the fact that it's a cardinal principle that plea bargains are deals, and are supposed to be enforced in the same manner as other contracts.

It's only worse that, unlike regular deals, here we have a court arguably misapprising Berman of the consequences of his deal, and arguable ineffective assistance of counsel as well -- arguments that Berman raises and yet are also rejected by the Court of Appeal. We're supposed to be more (not less) worried about "misunderstandings" when those mistakes result deprivations of liberty than when they result, as in ordinary contract cases like Herman's, in mere financial loss. And yet the Court of Appeal 's approach here seems to be precisely the opposite.

It'd be one thing if the deal wasn't in writing. But it is. Or was a scrivener's error. But it's not. Instead, here, we have the Court of Appeal rewriting the express terms of a deal after one of the parties has irrevocably performed. To the performing party's clear detriment.

That's troubling. At least to me.