The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan, Presiding Justice
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/13/1997
TRIAL JUDGE: HON. LILLIE BLACKMON SANDERS
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: ADAMS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: RONNIE L. HARPER
NATURE OF THE CASE: CRIMINAL - FELONY
DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED - 03/25/1999
MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED:
¶1. Stephanie and Mike Timmons were indicted during the January, 1997, Term in Adams County Circuit Court in Cause Number 10,953 for possession of more than one ounce and less than one kilogram of marijuana. The Timmonses were also indicted during the same term in Cause Number 10,954 for possession of cocaine within a church zone and possession of crystal methamphetamine within a church zone. As part of a plea bargain, the State agreed to retire the charges in Cause Numbers 10,953 and 10,954 in exchange for the couple pleading guilty to a separate set of charges in Cause Number 10,843. At a March 24, 1997, hearing before Circuit Court Judge Forrest A. Johnson, Jr., Mrs. Timmons pled guilty to sale of less than one ounce of marijuana and possession of more than one kilogram of marijuana in Cause Number 10,843. Mr. Timmons pled guilty to possession of more than one ounce, but less than one kilogram of marijuana in Cause Number 10, 843. Judge Johnson sentenced Mrs. Timmons to three years and a $1,000 fine for sale of marijuana and three years and a $1,000 fine on the possession charge, the sentences to run concurrently, plus all court costs. Mr. Timmons received a three-year suspended sentence and a $1,000 fine with a five-year probation period for possession of more than an ounce, less than a kilogram of marijuana.
¶2. On May 9, 1997, Circuit Court Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders heard the State's motion to dismiss the charges in Cause Numbers 10,953 and 10,954. Judge Sanders denied the State's motion and ordered that the case proceed to trial. Again, on May 13, 1997, District Attorney Ronnie L. Harper appeared before Judge Sanders requesting that she reconsider the State's motion to nolle prosequi the two indictments. Judge Sanders explained that she would not sign an order dismissing charges before her based upon a plea agreement made in another Judge's court of which she was not made aware, particularly considering the light sentence given as a result of the guilty pleas. She proposed instead that the district attorney have the guilty pleas before Judge Johnson set aside. Judge Sanders also suggested that the reason the State was willing to dismiss the charges against the Timmonses was because they were white. In her May 13, 1997, order, Judge Sanders denied both the State's motion to dismiss and its request for interlocutory appeal.
¶3. On May 14, 1997, the trial date set in this case, Judge Sanders refused to reconsider her decision after Discussion with the attorneys in chambers. She required District Attorney Harper to appear in court, where he declared that the State was not able ethically and legally to proceed based upon the previous plea agreement. Judge Sanders announced that she would request a prosecutor from the Attorney General's Office to proceed with the case.
¶4. We granted the State's motion for interlocutory appeal and entered an order staying the prosecutions. On appeal the State assigns as error the following:
I. A DISTRICT ATTORNEY HAS BROAD DISCRETION IN HANDLING CRIMINAL PROSECUTIONS AND MAY DISMISS INDICTMENTS AGAINST A DEFENDANT AS PART OF A PLEA AGREEMENT. THESE PLEA NEGOTIATIONS UNDER THE CONTROL OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY SHOULD NOT BE INTERFERED WITH BY THE COURT OUT OF RESPECT FOR SEPARATION OF POWERS.
II. THE "CONSENT OF COURT" REQUIRED FOR A NOLLE PROSEQUI BY MISSISSIPPI CODE ANNOTATED § 99-15-53 SHOULD NOT BE UNREASONABLY WITHHELD. EVEN THOUGH THE STATUTE DOES NOT REQUIRE THE STATE TO "SHOW CAUSE," THERE WAS ABUNDANT CAUSE IN THIS CASE FOR THE COURT TO APPROVE THE DISMISSAL.
III. BECAUSE THE TIMMONS DEFENDANTS RELIED ON THE PROMISE OF THE STATE TO DISMISS OTHER CHARGES AGAINST THEM, THEY CANNOT NOW BE PROSECUTED ON THOSE CHARGES.
¶5. These three assignments essentially boil down to one issue: whether the trial Judge abused her discretion in refusing the motion for nolle prosequi relied upon by the prosecutor and the defendant in reaching a plea agreement in this case. We find that the district attorney's failure to obtain prior court approval for the plea agreement in this case was error. However, once the Timmonses relied upon the plea agreement to their detriment by entering their guilty pleas, both the district attorney and the trial court were bound to uphold the State's end of the agreement by dismissing the charges in Cause Numbers 10,953 and ...