|A cool photo that has nothing to do with
withdrawing a guilty plea.
State v. Stewart
Criminal cases can be resolved in a number of ways. A defendant could choose to have a trial in his or her case and let a jury (or in some cases, a judge) decide whether the defendant is guilty. Far more likely is that the case resolves with the defendant pleading guilty to a charge. This happens for a lot of reasons.
For a court to accept a guilty plea, the court has to be satisfied that the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily giving up his or her trial rights (which are enumerated really quite nicely in my favorite friend, the Sixth Amendment). The court also has to be satisfied that the defendant agrees there are facts the government could prove beyond a reasonable doubt to satisfy all the elements of the alleged charges. We in the crim biz call this a “factual basis.”
The other part of resolving a case is sentencing. If a defendant is acquitted or the charge is dismissed, obviously there’s no need for sentencing. However, if a defendant is convicted, there needs to be a sentence imposed in order to resolve the case fully. Sentencing can happen in a couple different ways. It could be agreed-upon by the parties, or it could be left up to a judge to determine. In the case of a guilty plea, sometimes sentencing takes place at the time the defendant pleads guilty. Sometimes sentencing happens later at a separate hearing.
Defendants also have the right to withdraw their guilty pleas in certain circumstances and there are rules and standards for that. If the defendant moves to withdraw his or her plea before sentencing occurs, the court can permit that if the defendant shows “any fair and just reason and that reason substantially outweighs any prejudice which would result to the state from the withdrawal of the plea.” Generally, courts are supposed to be fairly liberal in granting these motions. It could signal that a defendant, in fact, is not willing to give up his or her trial rights. The court would have to balance any harm to the State in allowing the defendant to withdraw the plea against harm suffered by the defendant by forgoing his or her trial rights. Since trial rights are constitutionally protected (yeah! Sixth Amendment again!), it seems like a lot of weight ought to be given to the defendant’s request.
So, that takes us to the situation with Mr. Andrew Stewart. He was charged with assault and robbery with a deadly weapon. That’s the name of the charge in Vermont that covers conduct amounting to armed robbery. The facts alleged were that Mr. Stewart held a gun to a woman’s head in a restaurant parking lot and demanded money. Then he took her purse, wallet, and phone.
He was charged and subsequently pled guilty. Every guilty plea hearing involves a colloquy, or conversation, between the judge and the defendant. During that colloquy the judge has to be ensured the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily pleading guilty, understands the rights they’re giving up, and agrees there is a sufficient factual basis for the plea.
That’s where things went sideways. Mr. Stewart, upon being asked if the facts were what happened, said he didn’t know. He said he was intoxicated at the time of the alleged incident and as a result, had no memory of what happened. He wasn’t saying he didn’t do it, he was saying he didn’t know if the facts were correct because of his inebriated state at the time. The judge tried to break down the facts one by one, and Mr. Stewart said he didn’t remember.
They took a break and Mr. Stewart went to talk to his lawyer for a bit. They went back on the record, and the lawyer tried to explain that because of Mr. Stewart’s intoxication he wasn’t entirely clear on the details. He “admit[ted] it was him” but wasn’t clear on details. The lawyer suggested maybe a nolo contendre plea would be more appropriate.
The judge tried again, and Mr. Stewart essentially said that he wasn’t denying that he was the person who took the woman’s money, but that he had no memory of the specific details of the incident. Mr. Stewart said he had gone over the plea with his lawyer and that he had no concerns about the work the lawyer did for him in the case.
The judge was concerned, though, and seemed unsure about accepting the plea since Mr. Stewart struggled with the factual basis portion. Ultimately, though, the court accepted the plea because Mr. Stewart said he was voluntarily pleading and that although he couldn’t remember the facts, he agreed he committed the crime and wasn’t contesting the evidence.
A couple days later he filed a motion to withdraw his plea. This was denied. The court didn’t feel the defendant had presented a “fair and just reason” to withdraw his plea. He also got a new lawyer. Mr. Stewart was subsequently sentenced to 4-10 years to serve.
He appealed the denial of his right to withdraw his plea, and SCOV reversed. He also appealed the sentence, but because the part about the plea was reversed, SCOV had no need to get to the sentencing issue.
SCOV points to the standard of liberally granting motions to withdraw pleas if the motion is made before sentencing. Here the trial court was concerned about Mr. Stewart’s agreement with the factual basis during the plea hearing itself. Mr. Stewart raised this in his motion, which he filed only two days after the plea hearing. All this, combined with the fact he had not yet been sentenced, leads SCOV to conclude the trial court abused its discretion by not permitting the plea withdrawal. SCOV reversed, and remanded to the trial court.