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Law School Case Brief

People v. Farrar - 52 N.Y.2d 302, 437 N.Y.S.2d 961, 419 N.E.2d 864 (1981)


The sentencing decision is a matter committed to the exercise of the court's discretion, and it can be made only after careful consideration of all facts available at the time of sentencing. The determination of an appropriate sentence requires the exercise of discretion after due consideration given to, among other things, the crime charged, the particular circumstances of the individual before the court and the purpose of a penal sanction, in other words, societal protection, rehabilitation and deterrence. N.Y. Penal Law § 1.05(5). The law and strong public policy of New York mandate that the court, detached from outside pressures often brought to bear on the prosecution and defense, make that determination. Quite simply, the court must perform the delicate balancing necessary to accommodate the public and private interests represented in the criminal process.


Defendant was indicted for both felony and intentional murder, attempted murder, robbery, burglary and criminal possession of a weapon. These charges arose out of her participation in a robbery that ended with the death of a nonparticipant. Following negotiations, defendant pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter in full satisfaction of the indictment. At the time of plea, the court recounted the agreement reached: defendant was to be sentenced to a term of 8 1/3 to 25 years unless she was adjudicated a second felony offender, in which case she would receive a sentence of 12 1/2 to 25 years. The court, prosecutor, defendant and her counsel all acknowledged the agreement and the court accepted the plea to the lesser offense. Defendant was later found to be a predicate felon. At sentencing, the prosecutor argued for imposition of the 12 1/2- to 25-year sentence as agreed upon earlier. Defense counsel in turn urged the court to exercise its sentencing discretion independent of the prosecutor's demand and, pointing to the 8 1/3 minimum proposed for other defendants, requested that defendant be sentenced as a predicate felon to a 10- to 20-year term. The trial judge noted that he was troubled by the sentence proposed by the prosecutor and agreed with defense counsel that a 10- to 20-year term was more appropriate, given the lesser sentences to be meted out to the co-participants. Nonetheless, the court considered itself bound by the original sentence agreement. Defendant, declining the offer to permit withdrawal of her plea, was sentenced to a 12 1/2- to 25-year term of imprisonment. On appeal, the Appellate Division vacated the sentence and directed the trial court to exercise discretion without deeming itself bound not to impose a lesser sentence than that originally agreed upon. The prosecution appealed the judgment of the Appellate Division.


Does the trial court have sole discretion to impose a sentence without being bound by a negotiated plea agreement?




The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed the direction to the trial court but modified the order to allow the prosecution to withdraw its consent to the plea if the trial court imposed a lesser sentence. The sentencing decision was a matter committed to the exercise of the trial court's discretion; it can be made only after careful consideration of all facts available at the time of the sentencing. While the trial court legitimately may indicate that a proposed sentence is fair and acceptable, the necessary exercise of discretion cannot be fixed immutably at the time of the plea, because the decision requires information that may be unavailable then. The trial court was not bound by agreements between the parties but had the burden of balancing the interests when fashioning a sentence.  The Court found reviewed the sentencing minutes in this case and found that the trial judge had declined to exercise his discretion at sentencing. While stating his disagreement with a 12 1/2- to 25-year sentence for this defendant, the trial judge nonetheless imposed that penalty under the view that he was bound by the prior commitment to the prosecutor. This failure to exercise discretion at sentencing was error. The Appellate Division thus properly remitted the case to the trial court for resentencing.

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