Imposing the Maximum Allowable Term Reached in a Charge Bargain

In People v. French (2008) 43 Cal.4th 36, the defendant faced an aggregate term of 180 years to life in prison. (Id. at p. 42.) He negotiated a charge bargain, i.e., he agreed to plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for the dismissal of others but did not negotiate a sentence lid or stipulated term, resulting in a maximum allowable term of 18 years in prison. (Id. at p. 42.) Finding true a single aggravating factor, the trial court imposed the maximum term under the plea agreement. (Id. at pp. 42-43.) On appeal, French argued the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel in the course of determining the aggravating factor, and thus erred in imposing the maximum allowable term reached in the charge bargain. (French, supra, 43 Cal.4th 36, 40.) The People argued French could not raise his claim on appeal because he failed to obtain a certificate of probable cause. (Id. at p. 43.) The Supreme Court ultimately ruled as follows: "A certificate of probable cause is not required in the present case, because defendant's claim does not constitute an attack upon the validity of the plea agreement. In contrast to a case in which the maximum term under the plea agreement would be unlawful under section 654, the Sixth Amendment would not render an upper term unlawful for defendant's crimes under all circumstances. Whether an upper term sentence was permissible for defendant's offenses depended upon whether aggravating factors were established at the sentencing hearing, and not upon the facts of the offenses themselves. Even without a jury trial on aggravating circumstances, the upper term would have been authorized if the prosecution had established an aggravating factor at the sentencing hearing based upon defendant's prior convictions or upon his admissions. (See People v. Sandoval (2007) 41 Cal.4th 825, 836-837) Defendant's claim is that the upper term was not authorized because the prosecution failed to establish an aggravating circumstance at the sentencing hearing in the manner required by the Sixth Amendment. Such a claim does not affect the validity of the plea agreement. "Furthermore, we held in Sandoval, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pages 845-852, that a defendant who has established prejudicial Sixth Amendment error under Cunningham v. California (2007) 549 U.S. 270, is entitled to be resentenced under a scheme in which the trial court has full discretion to impose the upper, middle, or lower term, unconstrained by the requirement that the upper term may not be imposed unless an aggravating circumstance is established. Under our holding in Sandoval, if a defendant is successful in establishing Cunningham error on appeal, the trial court is not precluded from imposing the upper term upon remand for resentencing. The defendant is entitled only to be resentenced under a constitutional scheme and is afforded the opportunity to attempt to persuade the trial court to exercise its discretion to impose a lesser sentence. In contrast to the claims raised in Panizzon and Shelton (People v. Panizzon (1996) 13 Cal.4th 68; People v. Shelton, supra, 37 Cal.4th 759), defendant's claim, if successful, would not deprive the People of the benefit of the plea agreement, because they still would have the opportunity to convince the trial court that the full 18-year term should be imposed. Accordingly, defendant is entitled to have his Cunningham claim addressed on appeal. Fn. omitted." (French, supra, 43 Cal.4th at pp. 45-46.) In short, French's legal argument on appeal--that he was denied a jury trial on aggravating factors--was not a challenge to the trial court's authority to impose the maximum allowable term. Consequently, if his claim on appeal succeeded, it did not mean the trial court would be precluded from imposing the maximum sentence when the case was remanded to the trial court. The prosecution would still be able to prove the aggravating factors by appropriate procedures. (French, supra, 43 Cal.4th at pp. 45-46.) For that reason, there was no attack on the validity of the plea, and thus, no violation of the plea bargain.