S.D. Supreme Court upholds sentence that was much longer than had been planned in plea deal

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Court Gavel

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A Lincoln County circuit judge was within her authority when she gave a prison sentence longer than what had previously been negotiated between the defendant and the prosecutor, a majority of the South Dakota Supreme Court said in a decision that was publicly released Thursday.

Circuit Judge Rachel Rasmussen sentenced Laura Guziak to 12 years in the State Penitentiary with eight years suspended, after Guziak pleaded guilty to one count of abuse or cruelty to a minor. Guziak received a concurrent sentence of five years for possession of a controlled substance, with the sentence fully suspended.

Guziak had earlier agreed to plead guilty in return for the prosecutor agreeing to recommend to the judge a sentence of 180 days in county jail. Guziak’s attorney argued to the Supreme Court that the prosecutor instead delivered a mixed message to the judge and violated the plea agreement.

Chief Justice Steven Jensen wrote the opinion upholding Guziak’s sentence, but he also noted the prosecutor didn’t simply ask the court for the jail sentence and brought in other negative points about Guziak’s behavior: “The State cannot fulfill its duty of good faith by merely mentioning the plea agreement when its rhetoric amounted to an impermissible effort to influence the circuit court to impose a harsher sentence.”

The chief justice said Guziak, however, didn’t show that the prosecutor’s words resulted in any plain error. “The record before us does not establish that the State’s argument was a clear and obvious violation of the plea agreement,” he wrote.

Nor did Guziak show it caused prejudice in the judge’s decision, he said: “She argues that her substantial rights were violated by the State’s implied breach, but she fails to show, or even argue, that the circuit court imposed a harsher sentence or that she would have received a suspended sentence absent the State’s argument.”

Guziak also didn’t show that any of the prosecutor’s comments had any impact on the judge’s decision, according to the chief justice: “The court (Judge Rasmussen) informed the parties prior to sentencing that it would not be bound by the terms of the plea agreement and wanted to leave open the potential to impose a prison sentence.”

Justice Scott Myren dissented.

“The circuit court told the parties it would not be bound by the sentence recommendation made in the plea agreement. The circuit court appropriately offered Guziak the opportunity to withdraw her plea. Guziak elected to continue with the plea agreement. She was entitled to expect the State to honor its agreement. Although none of the parties knew what sentence the circuit court would impose, everyone knew the court intended to impose a harsher sentence than the one agreed to be recommended as part of the plea agreement. Even without the State’s breach, the court was not going to impose the recommended sentence. These simple facts make it impossible for Guziak to prove prejudice—ever.”

Justice Myren said he would have sent the case back for resentencing before another judge. “That judge could impose any sentence he or she deems appropriate after the State makes the sentence recommendation it had promised to make.”

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