State v. Langley

State v. Langley, 2016 MT 67 (March 22, 2016) (Baker, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in denying Langley’s motion to withdraw his no contest plea.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: In February 2014 the state charged Langley with one count of arson, a felony. Langley entered a plea agreement with the state under which he agreed to plead nolo contendre and the state agreed to recommend that sentencing be deferred for six years. The agreement further provided that Langley would be allowed to withdraw his plea if the state failed to perform its obligations under the plea agreement.

At the sentencing hearing, the court indicated it was not inclined to impose a deferred sentence. Langley’s attorney moved to withdraw the plea. The court gave Langley more time to present evidence as to why he should be given a deferred sentence, and postponed sentencing.

Before the next hearing, Langley moved to withdraw his plea. The state opposed the motion, arguing the plea agreement did not allow Langley to withdraw his plea and that any ambiguity should be resolved against Langley because his attorney drafted the agreement.

Procedural Posture & Holding: After full briefing, the district court denied Langley’s motion to withdraw his plea. At the sentencing hearing, Langley and the state asked the court to follow the plea agreement. The court explained why it would not, and sentenced Langley to the DOC for 10 years with five years suspended. Langley appeals (after first filing a writ of habeas corpus, which this Court denied), and the Supreme Court reverses. 

Reasoning: Plea agreements are governed by § 46-12-211, MCA. The state contends the plea agreement is ambiguous because it has terms that are irreconcilable with one another, and that the ambiguity should be construed against the drafter. Langley asserts there is no ambiguity and that the statute required the district court to afford Langley the opportunity to withdraw his plea.

The Court concludes the agreement is ambiguous, but holds that ambiguities in plea agreements are to be construed in favor of the defendant. The Court applies that standard and determines that Langley’s agreement was a 46-12-211(1)(b) agreement, not a (1)(c) agreement. On remand, if the district court rejects the plea agreement, it must give Langley an opportunity to withdraw his plea and proceed to trial.