Can the court lower my sentence?

Short answer: Yes, if the defendant or the attorney filed the right document at the right time.  That does not mean that the court will lower the sentence, but the option isn’t even on the table if the proper document was not filed at the proper time.  In my practice, I have seen the full gamut of rulings on Motions to Modify Sentence, from flat denials at the time of filing to life sentences being modified to time served sentences, which resulted in a defendant’s immediate release.  In all likelihood, such defendants would have otherwise died in prison.  What happens in a particular case depends on a number of factors that are unique to that case, but a defendant won’t even have a chance at this type of relief unless the Motion is filed on time. 

     When a defendant is sentenced in Maryland, he  typically has three post-sentencing rights:

  1. the right to file an appeal within 30 days (or an application for leave to appeal from a guilty plea),
  2. the right to file an application for sentence review by a three judge panel within 30 days (if sentence is at least two years), and
  3.  the right to file a Motion to Modify Sentence within ninety days.

This post will focus on that third right.  Under Maryland Rule 4-345, the sentencing court may reduce a defendant’s sentence pursuant to a pending Motion to Modify Sentence or a Motion for Reconsideration of Sentence.

Who?

Anyone sentenced in Maryland may file a Motion to Modify Sentence within 90 days of the date of sentence.

What?

A Motion to Modify Sentence is also called a Motion to Reconsider Sentence.  Same thing, different names.  It is also sometimes called a Modification or a “Mod” for short.  The sentencing court may only reduce the sentence or leave it the same based on this Motion.  The court cannot increase a sentence based on this Motion.  A defendant does not have a legal right to have his sentence reduced, but he does have the right to ask.  A defendant is neither entitled to a hearing nor entitled to relief with this Motion.  That means that the court could simply choose to deny the Motion at the time of filing or the court could agree to hold it and deny it later with or without a hearing.

Where?

This Motion must be filed with the same court that imposed the sentence.  If Judge John Doe is the one who sentenced the defendant, Judge John Doe is the one who gets to decide this motion.  If Judge John Doe has retired or died, then the Motion will usually go to the judge who inherited Judge John Doe’s docket.

When?

In order to preserve the right, the Motion must be filed within 90 days of the date of sentence.  But, at the time the Motion is filed, the defendant should request that the court hold the motion sub curia or in abeyance.  That simply means that the defendant is asking the court, please do not decide this motion now, hold onto it and decide it later.  It makes sense to ask the court to wait to decide the Motion from a very practical standpoint.  The court just sentenced the defendant based on the information it had available at the time sentencing.  The court is probably not going to change its mind about the sentence it imposed just 90 days earlier.  Also, an argument to reduce the defendant’s sentence is not a legal argument, it is a request for the court’s mercy.  Therefore, it makes sense to wait some period of time, build up a good institutional record while in prison, and then go back to the court to try and convince the court that the defendant has improved himself while incarcerated and is deserving of the court’s mercy.

Usually, the court is asked to hold the Motion in abeyance until such time as the defendant requests a hearing.  If a defendant was sentenced prior to July 1, 2004 and the Motion is still pending, the court has indefinite jurisdiction over the motion.  What that means is that if the court agreed to hold on to it at the time that it was filed, the court’s time to act on it never expires.  In theory, a defendant could come back to the court and ask the court to reduce his sentence, 20 years later, so long as the Motion has not been decided yet.

If a defendant was sentenced after July 1, 2004, the court has FIVE YEARS from the date of sentence to act.  Keep in mind, this is five years from the date of sentence, not five years from the date of filing the Motion.  After five years, the court no longer has the ability to reduce the sentence.  So, if a defendant manages to file a Motion to Modify Sentence within 90 days of sentence and the court agrees to hold it until the defendant requests a hearing, but the defendant forgets to act within his five year deadline, then the right is lost.  If the court is holding the motion, it is up to the defendant to ask the court to take action.

Why?

There is no downside to filing this motion.  As a result of this Motion, a defendant will either be in the exact same position he was in before he filed or he will be in a better position.  The court cannot increase the defendant’s sentence based on this Motion.  If the trial or guilty plea attorney failed to file the Motion within 90 days of the date of sentence, the only way to get the right back is through a post conviction.  The defendant must allege that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to file the Motion.  Unfortunately, despite the case law, not every county treats this issue the same.  In some jurisdictions, getting the right back is a relatively straightforward process, in others, the court will deny relief.

Relevant Case Law

Unless a defendant tells his trial counsel to not file a Motion to Modify Sentence, then trial counsel renders ineffective assistance in failing to do so.  In the absence of evidence that a defendant expressly told his attorney not to file the Motion, a defendant is entitled to file the Motion belatedly.

  • State v. Flansburg, 345 Md. 694, 703 (1997) (defendant is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel on a motion to modify sentence)
  • State v. Adams, 171 Md. App. 668, 716 (2006), reversed on other grounds, 406 Md. 240 (2008) (“[a]n objective standard of reasonableness requires that counsel file a motion for modification of sentence within ninety days after sentencing”)
  • Matthews v. State, 161 Md. App. 248, 252 (2005) (trial counsel’s failure to file a motion for reconsideration of sentence constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel without the necessity of showing that such a motion would have been granted)
  • Stovall v. State, 144 Md. App. 711, 728-29 (2002) (the entitlement to file a motion to modify sentence belatedly does not require a demonstration that the motion would have been successful).

 **An important note about guilty pleas.  If you entered a guilty plea, you still have the right to file a Motion to Modify Sentence.  However, if your plea was “binding” or an “ABA” plea, then the court cannot lower your sentence without the State’s consent.

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