A plea deal can be an effective tool for a person facing significant criminal charges, often allowing the person to plead guilty to lesser crimes and reduce the potential impact of a conviction. As a recent case out of the West Virginia Supreme Court shows, however, a person considering a plea deal should be completely aware of what pleading guilty to certain charges means.
Mr. Ferrell was arrested in March 2013 and charged with six separate felonies related to his alleged operation of a clandestine drug lab. Among the charges, Ferrell was accused of manufacturing methamphetamine, exposing children to methamphetamine manufacturing, and possession of methamphetamine. Before trial on the charges, prosecutors offered to drop all six felonies if Ferrell agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of possessing a controlled substance. The first charge related to methamphetamine and the second related to hydrocodone. Each carried a maximum sentence of six months behind bars. Ferrell agreed to the deal and pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanors.
The state opposed Ferrell’s request for home arrest instead of incarceration at a sentencing hearing, arguing that he had an extensive criminal record and had tested positive for drugs during an investigation prior to the hearing. The trial judge sided with the prosecutors, sentencing Ferrell to serve two consecutive six-month sentences for a total of one year behind bars. Ferrell later appealed the decision, asserting that the sentences should run concurrently. That would allow Ferrell to be released after just six months in prison.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the state Supreme Court said the consecutive sentences were justified under the law. “The maximum sentence for illegal drug possession under West Virginia Code Section 60A-4-401(c) is six months per count,” the Court said. “Mr. Ferrell knowingly and voluntarily pled guilty to two counts of drug possession. Therefore, under West Virginia Code Section 60A-4-401(c), the circuit court could not have given Mr. Ferrell a sentence greater than one year in prison.”
The Court rejected Ferrell’s claim that the judge should have treated Ferrell’s conviction for possessing two different types of drugs at the same time as one crime with one sentence. In 1981, the state Supreme Court held in State v. Barnett that the delivery of two controlled substances to the same person at the same time should be considered one offense. Separate convictions, the court said in that case, would violate the state’s “double jeopardy” rule, which generally provides that a person cannot be charged twice for the same crime. In this case, however, the Court said Ferrell waived his right to double jeopardy protection by knowingly entering the guilty plea. “Accordingly, Mr. Ferrell’s assertion that the court erred in sentencing him on both counts to which he pleaded guilty is without support,” the Court concluded.
As this case makes clear, there are a number of issues to consider when mulling a possible plea agreement in a criminal case. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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