“At any time the court must allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea … [if] necessary to correct a manifest injustice.”
Rule 15.05, Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure
A recurring type of case addressed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals consists of efforts by criminal defendants to undo their guilty pleas.
The cases usually are brought by motion to withdraw the pleas, either by direct appeal or occasionally on post-conviction challenges. But regardless of how they get there, the appeals are almost inevitably rejected by the Court of Appeals.
A couple of concurrent cases decided by that tribunal this fall reflect this reality.
A Hennepin County man convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm lost his effort to set aside his guilty plea on grounds that it was not accurate in Perkins v. State, 2023 WL 6380895 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2023)(unpublished). The defendant pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm, a handgun that was found at his home during an unannounced execution of a search warrant. He had been charged with violation of Minn. Stat. §624.713, subd. 1, 2, which prohibits a person who has previously been convicted of a crime of violence from possessing a firearm.
A year after pleading guilty, he filed a post-conviction petition raising a number of issues and seeking to withdraw the plea.
The Hennepin County District Court refused to do so, and the appellate court affirmed, holding that the lower court “did not abuse it discretion … because the guilty plea was valid.” The court rejected the post-conviction claimant’s assertion that his guilty plea was “inaccurate” because the colloquy with the court during the plea did not establish an adequate “factual basis” for the offense. He claimed the plea was invalid because he did not admit that he had a prior conviction for a “crime of violence,” which would make him ineligible to possess a firearm, or confirm the information about his prior conviction.
Noting the requirement that a plea must be “accurate, voluntary, and intelligent,” the court focused on whether there was a “proper factual basis to support [the] accuracy” of the plea. In this case, as in another precedential case, the defendant “had the opportunity to review the complaint and discuss his plea with his lawyer” before agreeing to it. The complaint alleged the previous conviction of drug offenses, citing the relevant court file and date of conviction. The defendant then signed and filed a guilty-plea petition, which at no point alleged that his previous conviction was invalid. Thus, the lower court did not “abuse its discretion by denying [the] request to withdraw his guilty plea.” Nor were any of the other claims asserted in the post-conviction petition valid, including the claim that the prior offenses did not constitute a “crime of violence” for statutory purposes.
The statutory definition of “crime of violence” is not “unambiguous on its face” and includes an exhaustive list of offenses and do not require that there be “physical force, injury, or use of a dangerous weapon” in order to trigger the statute.
The defendant’s comparison to the federal parallel statute, in 18 U.S.C. § 924 (e) (2)(D) is inapplicable because the federal statute has different terminology and different case law, which do not apply to “Minnesota’s unlawful possession statute.” His claim of improper prosecution and ineffective assistance of counsel also were rejected.
Both his trial counsel and the attorney on appeal satisfied the “objective standard of reasonable” for representation, which bars the “ineffective assistance“ claim under Strickland v. Washington, 462 U.S. 668 (1984) and its Minnesota analog State v. King, 990 N.W.2d 406 (Minn. 2023).
Therefore, the plea was valid, and not subject to withdrawal.
Another defendant failed in a challenge to a plea to a third-degree manslaughter charge for supplying fentanyl that caused a woman’s death in State v. Marrison, 2023 WL 6380542 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 2, 2023)(unpublished). Taking a direct appeal, the defendant asserted that he was improperly compelled to enter the guilty plea, an assertion rejected by the Goodhue County District Court, which was affirmed by the appellate court.
Whether the plea can be set aside depends upon two factors: 1) the justifiable reasons advanced by the claimant, who has the burden of proof to show it would be “fair and just” to do so; and 2) any prejudice to the State, which has the burden on this issue.
It is only a rare case that satisfies these standards, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that this one does not fall within that narrow category.
The defendant’s claim turned on alleged “coercion” by his counsel, who he claimed put “undue pressure” on him to plead guilty.
But review of the transcript of the guilty plea hearing and other material indicated that there was “nothing in the record, [that] suggested that [he] was coerced” into pleading guilty. In the absence of any “substantiated reasons” for withdrawal of guilty plea, the conviction sustained because the outcome was deemed “fair and just.”
This pair of cases demonstrates the problems that defendants in criminal cases face in challenging guilty pleas’ dispositions and the nearly inevitable outcome of their effort to overturn those outcomes.
The Standard for Ineffective-Assistance of Counsel Claim
Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.
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