Ricketts v. Adamson
483 U.S. 1 (1987)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Ricketts v. Adamson, 483 U.S. 1 (1987)

Ricketts v. Adamson

No. 86-6

Argued April 1, 1987

Decided June 22, 1987

483 U.S. 1

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Shortly after his trial for first-degree murder had commenced in an Arizona court, respondent and the prosecutor reached an agreement whereby respondent would plead guilty to second-degree murder and testify against other parties involved in the murder, in return for a specified prison term and a specified actual incarceration time. The agreement also provided that, if respondent refused to testify "this entire agreement is null and void and the original charge will be automatically reinstated," and that, "[i]n the event this agreement becomes null and void, then the parties shall be returned to the positions they were in before this agreement." The trial court accepted the plea agreement and proposed sentence, and respondent testified against the other individuals, who were convicted of first-degree murder. The Arizona Supreme Court reversed the latter convictions, remanding for retrial, and the prosecutor sought respondent's further cooperation, but was informed that respondent believed his obligation to testify under the agreement terminated when he was sentenced. After the trial court refused to compel him to testify in pretrial proceedings, the State filed a new information charging him with first-degree murder. The trial court denied his motion to quash the information on double jeopardy grounds, and the Arizona Supreme Court, in special proceedings filed by respondent, vacated his second-degree murder conviction and reinstated the original charges, holding that the plea agreement contemplated availability

Page 483 U. S. 2

of his testimony against the other individuals at both trial and retrial, that he had violated the agreement's terms, and that the agreement waived the defense of double jeopardy if it was violated. The State then declined his offer to testify at the other individuals' retrial, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, and the judgment was affirmed on appeal. He then unsuccessfully sought habeas corpus relief in Federal District Court, but the Court of Appeals ultimately held that the State had violated his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause, concluding that he had not waived such rights by entering into the plea agreement.

Held: Respondent's prosecution for first-degree murder did not violate double jeopardy principles, since his breach of the plea agreement removed the double jeopardy bar that otherwise would prevail, assuming that, under state law, second-degree murder is a lesser included offense of first-degree murder. Pp. 483 U. S. 8-12.

(a) The record establishes that respondent understood the meaning of the agreement's provisions concerning the consequences of his breach of his promise to testify. It is not significant that "double jeopardy" was not specifically waived by name in the agreement, since its terms are precisely equivalent to an agreement waiving a double jeopardy defense. Pp. 483 U. S. 9-10.

(b) There is no merit to the view that, since there was a good faith dispute about whether respondent was bound to testify a second time, there could be no knowing and intelligent waiver of his double jeopardy defense until the extent of his obligation was decided. Respondent knew that, if he breached the agreement, he could be retried, and he chose to seek a construction of the agreement in the State Supreme Court, rather than to testify at the retrial. He cannot escape the State Supreme Court's finding that he had breached his promise to testify, and there was no indication that he did not fully understand the potential seriousness of the position he adopted. Cf. United States v. Scott,437 U. S. 82. Pp. 483 U. S. 10-12.

(c) It is of no moment that, following the Arizona Supreme Court's decision, respondent offered to comply with the terms of the agreement, since at that point his second-degree murder conviction had been ordered vacated and the original charge reinstated. The parties could have agreed that respondent would be relieved of the consequences of his refusal to testify if he were able to advance a colorable argument that a testimonial obligation was not owing, but permitting the State to enforce the agreement actually made does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. P. 483 U. S. 12.

789 F.2d 722, reversed.

Page 483 U. S. 3

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post p. 483 U. S. 12.

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question for decision is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause bars the prosecution of respondent for first-degree murder following his breach of a plea agreement under which he had pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, had been sentenced, and had begun serving a term of imprisonment. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the prosecution of respondent violated double jeopardy principles, and directed the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. We reverse.

In 1976, Donald Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, was fatally injured when a dynamite bomb exploded underneath his car. Respondent was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with Bolles' death. Shortly after his trial had commenced, while jury selection was underway, respondent and the state prosecutor reached an agreement whereby respondent agreed to plead guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and to testify against two other individuals -- Max Dunlap and James Robison -- who were allegedly involved in Bolles' murder. Specifically, respondent agreed to

"testify fully and completely in any Court, State or Federal, when requested by proper authorities

Page 483 U. S. 4

against any and all parties involved in the murder of Don Bolles. . . ."

789 F.2d 722, 731 (1986). The agreement provided that,

"[s]hould the defendant refuse to testify or should he at any time testify untruthfully . . . , then this entire agreement is null and void and the original charge will be automatically reinstated."

Ibid. [Footnote 1] The parties agreed that respondent would receive a prison sentence of 48-49 years, with a total incarceration time of 20 years and 2 months. In January, 1977, the state trial court accepted the plea agreement and the proposed sentence, but withheld imposition of the sentence. Thereafter, respondent testified as obligated under the agreement, and both Dunlap and Robison were convicted of the first-degree murder of Bolles. While their convictions and sentences were on appeal, the trial court, upon motion of the State, sentenced respondent. In February, 1980, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Dunlap and Robison and remanded their cases for retrial. State v. Dunlap, 125 Ariz. 104, 608 P.2d 41. This event sparked the dispute now before us.

The State sought respondent's cooperation and testimony in preparation for the retrial of Dunlap and Robison. On April 3, 1980, however, respondent's counsel informed the prosecutor that respondent believed his obligation to provide testimony under the agreement had terminated when he was sentenced. Respondent would again testify against Dunlap and Robison only if certain conditions were met, including, among others, that the State release him from custody following the retrial. 789 F.2d at 733. [Footnote 2] The State then

Page 483 U. S. 5

informed respondent's attorney on April 9, 1980, that it deemed respondent to be in breach of the plea agreement. On April 18, 1980, the State called respondent to testify in pretrial proceedings. In response to questions, and upon advice of counsel, respondent invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The trial judge, after respondent's counsel apprised him of the State's letter of April 9 indicating that the State considered respondent to be in breach of the plea agreement, refused to compel respondent to answer questions. The Arizona Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction of the State's petition for special action to review the trial judge's decision.

On May 8, 1980, the State filed a new information charging respondent with first-degree murder. Respondent's motion to quash the information on double jeopardy grounds was denied. Respondent challenged this decision by a special action in the Arizona Supreme Court. That court, after reviewing the plea agreement, the transcripts of the plea hearing and the sentencing hearing, respondent's April 3 letter to the state prosecutor, and the prosecutor's April 9 response to that letter, held with "no hesitation" that "the plea agreement contemplates availability of [respondent's] testimony whether at trial or retrial after reversal," Adamson v. Superior Court of Arizona, 125 Ariz. 579, 583, 611 P.2d 932, 936 (1980), and that respondent "violated the terms of the plea agreement." Ibid. [Footnote 3] The court also rejected respondent's

Page 483 U. S. 6

double jeopardy claim, holding that the plea agreement, "by its very terms, waives the defense of double jeopardy if the agreement is violated." Id. at 584, 611 P.2d at 937. Finally,

Page 483 U. S. 7

the court held that, under state law and the terms of the plea agreement, the State should not have filed a new information, but should have merely reinstated the initial charge. Accordingly, the court vacated respondent's second-degree murder conviction, reinstated the original charge, and dismissed the new information.

After these rulings, respondent offered to testify at the retrials, but the State declined his offer. Respondent sought federal habeas relief, arguing that the Arizona Supreme Court had misconstrued the terms of the plea agreement. The District Court dismissed his petition, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, Adamson v. Hill, 667 F.2d 1030 (1981), and we denied respondent's petition for a writ of certiorari. 455 U.S. 992 (1982).

Respondent was then convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The judgment was affirmed on direct appeal, State v. Adamson, 136 Ariz. 250, 665 P.2d 972, and we denied certiorari. 464 U.S. 865 (1983). Respondent sought federal habeas corpus for the second time, asserting a number of claims relating to his trial and sentence. The District Court dismissed the petition; a Court of Appeals panel affirmed. 758 F.2d 441 (1985). The Court of Appeals went en banc, held that the State had violated respondent's rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause, and directed the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. The en banc opinion reasoned that respondent had not waived his double jeopardy rights by entering into the plea agreement, asserting that

"[i]t may well be argued that the only manner in which [respondent] could have made an intentional relinquishment of a known double jeopardy right would be by waiver 'spread on the record' of the court after an adequate explanation."

789 F.2d at 728 (citing Boykin v. Alabama,395 U. S. 238, 395 U. S. 242 (1969)). Even if double jeopardy rights could be waived by implication, no such waiver occurred here, since

"[a]greeing

Page 483 U. S. 8

that charges may be reinstituted under certain circumstances is not equivalent to agreeing that, if they are reinstituted a double jeopardy defense is waived."

789 F.2d at 728. Finally, the court stated that, even were the agreement read to waive double jeopardy rights impliedly, no waiver was effected here, because a "defendant's action constituting the breach must be taken with the knowledge that, in so doing, he waives his double jeopardy rights." Id. at 729. Because there was a "reasonable dispute as to [respondent's] obligation to testify," the court continued, "there could be no knowing or intentional waiver until his obligation to testify was announced by the court." Ibid. The dissenting judges emphasized that respondent's refusal to testify triggered the second prosecution and the Double Jeopardy Clause "does not relieve a defendant from the consequences of his voluntary choice.'" Id. at 740 (Brunetti, J., dissenting) (quoting United States v. Scott,437 U. S. 82, 437 U. S. 99 (1978)). We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' decision that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred prosecution of respondent for first-degree murder. 479 U.S. 812 (1986).

We may assume that jeopardy attached at least when respondent was sentenced in December, 1978, on his plea of guilty to second-degree murder. Assuming also that, under Arizona law, second-degree murder is a lesser included offense of first-degree murder, the Double Jeopardy Clause, absent special circumstances, [Footnote 4] would have precluded prosecution of respondent for the greater charge on which he now stands convicted. Brown v. Ohio,432 U. S. 161, 432 U. S. 168 (1977). The State submits, however, that respondent's breach of the plea arrangement to which the parties had agreed removed the double jeopardy bar to prosecution of respondent on the first-degree murder charge. We agree with the State.

Page 483 U. S. 9

Under the terms of the plea agreement, both parties bargained for and received substantial benefits. [Footnote 5] The State obtained respondent's guilty plea and his promise to testify against "any and all parties involved in the murder of Don Bolles" and in certain specified other crimes. 789 F.2d at 731. Respondent, a direct participant in a premeditated and brutal murder, received a specified prison sentence accompanied with a guarantee that he would serve actual incarceration time of 20 years and 2 months. He further obtained the State's promise that he would not be prosecuted for his involvement in certain other crimes.

The agreement specifies in two separate paragraphs the consequences that would flow from respondent's breach of his promises. Paragraph 5 provides that, if respondent refused to testify, "this entire agreement is null and void, and the original charge will be automatically reinstated." Ibid. (emphasis added). Similarly, Paragraph 15 of the agreement states that,

"[i]n the event this agreement becomes null and void, then the parties shall be returned to the positions they were in before this agreement."

Id. at 732. Respondent unquestionably understood the meaning of these provisions. At the plea hearing, the trial judge read the plea agreement to respondent, line by line, and pointedly asked respondent whether he understood the provisions in Paragraphs 5 and 15. Respondent replied "Yes, sir," to each question. App. 23-24, 28-29. On this score, we do not find it significant, as did the Court of Appeals, that "double jeopardy" was not specifically waived by name in the plea agreement. Nor are we persuaded by the court's assertion that

"[a]greeing that charges may be reinstituted . . . is not equivalent to agreeing

Page 483 U. S. 10

that, if they are reinstituted, a double jeopardy defense is waived."

789 F.2d at 728. The terms of the agreement could not be clearer: in the event of respondent's breach occasioned by a refusal to testify, the parties would be returned to the status quo ante, in which case respondent would have no double jeopardy defense to waive. And an agreement specifying that charges may be reinstated given certain circumstances is, at least under the provisions of this plea agreement, precisely equivalent to an agreement waiving a double jeopardy defense. The approach taken by the Court of Appeals would render the agreement meaningless: first-degree murder charges could not be reinstated against respondent if he categorically refused to testify after sentencing, even if the agreement specifically provided that he would so testify, because, under the Court of Appeals' view, he never waived his double jeopardy protection. Even respondent, however, conceded at oral argument that "a waiver could be found under those circumstances. . . ." Tr. of Oral Arg. 42-43.

We are also unimpressed by the Court of Appeals' holding that there was a good faith dispute about whether respondent was bound to testify a second time, and that, until the extent of his obligation was decided, there could be no knowing and intelligent waiver of his double jeopardy defense. But respondent knew that, if he breached the agreement, he could be retried, and it is incredible to believe that he did not anticipate that the extent of his obligation would be decided by a court. Here he sought a construction of the agreement in the Arizona Supreme Court, and that court found that he had failed to live up to his promise. The result was that respondent was returned to the position he occupied prior to execution of the plea bargain: he stood charged with first-degree murder. Trial on that charge did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. United States v. Scott,437 U. S. 82 (1978), supports this conclusion.

Page 483 U. S. 11

At the close of all the evidence in Scott, the trial judge granted defendant's motion to dismiss two counts of the indictment against him on the basis of preindictment delay. This Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause did not bar the Government from appealing the trial judge's decision, because,

"in a case such as this, the defendant, by deliberately choosing to seek termination of the proceedings against him on a basis unrelated to factual guilt or innocence of the offense of which he was accused, suffers no injury cognizable under the Double Jeopardy Clause. . . ."

Id. at 437 U. S. 98-99. The Court reasoned further that "the Double Jeopardy Clause . . . does not relieve a defendant from the consequences of his voluntary choice." The "voluntary choice" to which the Scott Court referred was the defendant's decision to move for dismissal of two counts of the indictment, seeking termination of that portion of the proceedings before the empaneled jury, rather than facing the risk that he might be convicted if his case were submitted to the jury. The respondent in this case had a similar choice. He could submit to the State's request that he testify at the retrial, and in so doing risk that he would be providing testimony that, pursuant to the agreement, he had no obligation to provide, or he could stand on his interpretation of the agreement, knowing that, if he were wrong, his breach of the agreement would restore the parties to their original positions and he could be prosecuted for first-degree murder. Respondent chose the latter course, and the Double Jeopardy Clause does not relieve him from the consequences of that choice.

Respondent cannot escape the Arizona Supreme Court's interpretation of his obligations under the agreement. The State did not force the breach; respondent chose, perhaps for strategic reasons or as a gamble, to advance an interpretation of the agreement that proved erroneous. And there is no indication that respondent did not fully understand the potential seriousness of the position he adopted. In the April 3 letter, respondent's counsel advised the prosecutor

Page 483 U. S. 12

that respondent

"is fully aware of the fact that your office may feel that he has not completed his obligations under the plea agreement . . . and, further, that your office may attempt to withdraw the plea agreement from him, [and] that he may be prosecuted for the killing of Donald Bolles on a first degree murder charge."

789 F.2d at 733. This statement of respondent's awareness of the operative terms of the plea agreement only underscores that which respondent's plea hearing made evident: respondent clearly appreciated and understood the consequences were he found to be in breach of the agreement.

Finally, it is of no moment that, following the Arizona Supreme Court's decision, respondent offered to comply with the terms of the agreement. At this point, respondent's second-degree murder conviction had already been ordered vacated, and the original charge reinstated. The parties did not agree that respondent would be relieved from the consequences of his refusal to testify if he were able to advance a colorable argument that a testimonial obligation was not owing. The parties could have struck a different bargain, but permitting the State to enforce the agreement the parties actually made does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

It is so ordered.

[Footnote 1]

The agreement further provided that, in the event respondent refused to testify, he

"will be subject to the charge of Open Murder, and if found guilty of First Degree Murder, to the penalty of death or life imprisonment requiring mandatory twenty-five years actual incarceration, and the State shall be free to file any charges, not yet filed as of the date of this agreement."

789 F.2d at 731.

[Footnote 2]

Respondent's other conditions -- which he characterized as "demands" -- included that he be held in a nonjail facility with protection during the retrials, that he be provided with new clothing, that protection be afforded his ex-wife and son, that a fund be provided for his son's education, that he be given adequate resources to establish a new identity outside Arizona following his release from custody, and that he be granted "full and complete immunity for any and all crimes in which he may have been involved." Id. at 733-734.

[Footnote 3]

The Arizona Supreme Court noted that, at oral argument, respondent explained for the first time the basis for his refusal to testify. Respondent relied on Paragraph 8 of the plea agreement, which provides:

"All parties to this agreement hereby waive the time for sentencing and agree that the defendant will be sentenced at the conclusion of his testimony in all of the cases referred to in this agreement. . . ."

In rejecting respondent's contention that this provision relieved him from his obligation to testify after he had already been sentenced, the court referred to the colloquy that occurred at the sentencing hearing. At that hearing, the prosecuting attorney stated that he had discussed with respondent's counsel the fact "that it may be necessary in the future to bring [respondent] back after sentencing for further testimony." 125 Ariz. at 583, 611 P.2d at 936. Respondent's counsel indicated that they understood that future testimony may be necessary. The court concluded that whatever doubt was created by Paragraph 8 regarding respondent's obligation to testify after sentencing, the colloquy at the sentencing hearing evinced a "clear understanding" that respondent would be so obligated. Ibid. Respondent argued in the Court of Appeals -- and renews the argument here -- that the "further testimony" mentioned by the prosecutor at the sentencing hearing referred to testimony in a wholly separate prosecution that had yet to be tried. We will not second-guess the Arizona Supreme Court's construction of the language of the plea agreement. While we assess independently the plea agreement's effect on respondent's double jeopardy rights, the construction of the plea agreement and the concomitant obligations flowing therefrom are, within broad bounds of reasonableness, matters of state law, and we will not disturb the Arizona Supreme Court's reasonable disposition of those issues. The dissent's discourse on the law of contracts is thus illuminating, but irrelevant. The questions whether the plea agreement obligated the respondent to testify at the retrial of Dunlap and Robison and, if so, whether the respondent breached this duty are matters appropriately left to the state courts. The dissent acknowledges that "deference to the Arizona Supreme Court's construction is appropriate," post at 483 U. S. 13, n. 1, but proceeds to engage in plenary review of that court's holding that the respondent breached the agreement. The dissent does not explain the nature of the deference it purports to afford the state courts, and one is unable to detect any such deference in the approach the dissent advocates. And the dissent misconceives the interrelationship between the construction of the terms of the plea agreement and the respondent's assertion of a double jeopardy defense. As noted previously, once a state court has, within broad bounds of reasonableness, determined that a breach of a plea agreement results in certain consequences, a federal habeas court must independently assess the effect of those consequences on federal constitutional rights. This independent assessment, however, proceeds without second-guessing the finding of a breach, and is not a license to substitute a federal interpretation of the terms of a plea agreement for a reasonable state interpretation.

[Footnote 4]

See, e.g., Ohio v. Johnson,467 U. S. 493 (1984); Jeffers v. United States,432 U. S. 137, 432 U. S. 152 (1977) (plurality).

[Footnote 5]

We have observed that plea agreements are neither constitutionally compelled nor prohibited; they

"are consistent with the requirements of voluntariness and intelligence -- because each side may obtain advantages when a guilty plea is exchanged for sentencing concessions, the agreement is no less voluntary than any other bargained-for exchange."

Mabry v. Johnson,467 U. S. 504, 467 U. S. 508 (1984).

JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL, JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and JUSTICE STEVENS join, dissenting.

The critical question in this case is whether Adamson ever breached his plea agreement. Only by demonstrating that such a breach occurred can it plausibly be argued that Adamson waived his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause. By simply assuming that such a breach occurred, the Court ignores the only important issue in this case.

I begin by demonstrating that, even if one defers to the Arizona Supreme Court's construction of the plea agreement, one must conclude that Adamson never breached that agreement.

Page 483 U. S. 13

I then show that, absent a conscious decision by Adamson to breach his agreement, our cases provide no support for the Court's conclusion that he has waived his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause.

I

At the heart of this case is a plea bargain, an agreement to be interpreted in a constitutional context. We are asked to define the constitutional rights and responsibilities that arise from the language of that agreement, from the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and from the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Court correctly observes that it must "assess independently the plea agreement's effect on respondent's double jeopardy rights." Ante at 483 U. S. 6, n. 3. I think that the Court errs, however, in concluding that its assessment can proceed without an independent examination, informed by due process principles, of Adamson's actions under that agreement. Ibid. Deferring to the Arizona Supreme Court's construction of the agreement cannot relieve the Court of its responsibility to determine whether, in light of that construction, Adamson can be held to have lost his federal constitutional protection against being placed twice in jeopardy. The requirements of due process have guided this Court in evaluating the promises and conduct of state prosecutors in securing a guilty plea. Santobello v. New York,404 U. S. 257 (1971). There is no reason to ignore those requirements here.

A

Without disturbing the conclusions of the Arizona Supreme Court as to the proper construction of the plea agreement, [Footnote 2/1]

Page 483 U. S. 14

one may make two observations central to the resolution of this case. First, the agreement does not contain an explicit waiver of all double jeopardy protection. [Footnote 2/2] Instead, the Arizona Supreme Court found in the language of

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.