In People v. Prudholme, the Supreme Court today holds that legislation reducing maximum probation terms applies retroactively and, when so applied, doesn’t jeopardize a plea agreement reached under the harsher superseded law.

Everyone is on the same page on the retroactivity issue — the defendant, the Attorney General, and the court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan. The parties’ dispute is about whether a prosecutor or trial court can opt to void a plea deal that included a probationary term that is now longer than permitted. It’s not an easily resolved issue, because the Legislature didn’t specify an answer.

In People v. Stamps (2020) 9 Cal.5th 685, the court — also in an opinion by Justice Corrigan — held that, if a defendant asks the trial court to strike a serious-felony sentencing enhancement under retroactive legislation and the court indicates a willingness to do so, the prosecution can withdraw from the plea agreement or the trial court can withdraw its prior approval of the deal. (See here.)

Addressing whether a Stamps-like remand is appropriate, the court today finds ambiguity in determining whether the Legislature in the probation statute amendment “intend[ed] to exercise its own authority to change the terms of an existing plea bargain to reduce the length of an agreed-upon term of probation.” The opinion ultimately “discern[s] this intent from the goals of the legislation, which would be thwarted if the prosecution could routinely withdraw from plea agreements where it deemed the probationary length insufficient.”

However, if the Legislature had done a better job, the court’s decision wouldn’t have been so difficult; indeed, an opinion on the issue probably wouldn’t have been necessary at all. The court ends its opinion by “urg[ing] the Legislature, and the electorate with respect to ballot measures, to consider the retroactive application of new laws and to regularly express their intent regarding if and how they should be applied retroactively.” The court says that, otherwise, “determining legislative intent in these circumstances can be a difficult, divisive, and time-consuming one for courts, which have to discern intent from sometimes opaque sources.”

The court says it’s modifying and affirming the Fourth District, Division Two, Court of Appeal’s unpublished opinion, but there is a bit of charity in the disposition’s phrasing because it’s mostly a reversal. Contrary to today’s opinion, the appellate court ordered a remand “to permit the People and the trial court an opportunity to accede to the shorter term of probation or withdraw from the plea agreement.”

Also, the Supreme Court disapproves the Third District’s 2-1 decision in People v. Scarano (2022) 74 Cal.App.5th 993. Scarano is a grant-and-hold for today’s Prudholme opinion. In Scarano, the court granted-and-held on its own motion and denied a depublication request after having denied an application to file a petition for review that was submitted one week late. (Related: Getting relief for a late petition for review might not be a hopeless cause.)