Lower court should have considered reasons for termination before imposing conviction and sentence, says high court.Richmond, VA -- In a unanimous decision, the Virginia Supreme Court yesterday ruled that when a criminal defendant enters a drug court treatment program as part of a plea bargain, termination from the program may not be used as a basis for conviction and sentencing unless the defendant is afforded a hearing on the reasons for the termination.
Judson Harris was charged with felony drug possession in Fredericksburg in 2005. He agreed to a plea bargain that allowed him to enter the Rappahannock Area Regional Drug Treatment Court Program, which offers drug treatment and rehabilitation while imposing strict behavioral guidelines. Under the plea agreement, if Harris successfully completed the drug court program, his charges would be dismissed. If he failed to complete the program, he could be convicted and sentenced to three years in prison with all but six months suspended.
Harris participated in the drug court program for over a year and made significant progress in treatment. Nonetheless, he was terminated from the program, apparently because of some comments made on his MySpace page. He was given no notice that his termination was being considered, and no opportunity to submit evidence in his own defense. The circuit court then imposed the conviction and sentence set forth in the plea agreement without considering any evidence of the reasons for Harris’s termination from drug court.
The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the conviction and sentence violated the Due Process Clause. “[B]ecause Harris had no opportunity to participate in the termination decision, the trial court’s refusal to consider evidence of the reasons for the termination from the program when deciding whether to revoke Harris’ liberty and impose the terms of the plea agreement deprived Harris of the opportunity to be heard regarding the propriety of the revocation of his liberty interest. That decision was in error.”
“This is a resounding victory for the principle of due process of law,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg, who represented Harris. “This decision will help ensure that people are not arbitrarily terminated from treatment programs when the consequence is a criminal conviction and jail time.”
In addition to Glenberg, Harris was represented by Joseph Brown, a criminal defense attorney in Fredericksburg. The decision may be found at http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1091177.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022