Most criminal cases result in plea bargains.  But the admissions of guilt in these cases occasionally are challenged when the defendants subsequently seek to withdraw their pleas.

Withdrawing a plea is about as hard as putting the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle.  This difficulty was reflected in a trio of recent cases decided concurrently by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The tribunal affirmed the lower court decisions in three different judicial districts, refusing to allow defendants to withdraw their guilty pleas, along with another affirmance a few weeks later.

Murder matter

A man who pled guilty to killing his wife and two of his three children in Ramsey County District Court was unsuccessful in his postconviction effort to withdraw his guilty plea of three counts of second degree murder in Kebabe v. State, 2013 WL 216329 (Minn. App. Jan. 22, 2013) (unpublished).

The defendant asserted that the lower court abused its discretion by failing to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea because he was incompetent at the time of both his plea and sentencing hearing.  Due to his condition, he claimed that the district court should have sua sponte ordered a competency evaluation, pursuant to Rule 20.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure.

But the Court of Appeals, agreeing with the postconviction judge, held that there was no “manifest injustice” to warrant allowing the plea to be withdrawn, as required under Rule 15.05 Subd. 1.  The defendant’s guilty plea was undertaken intelligently, voluntarily, was accurate, and did not warrant being set aside.

Untimely undertaking

A pro se claimant who sought to withdraw a guilty plea to a 2005 misdemeanor fifth degree assault was rejected because his undertaking was untimely in Michener v. State, 2013 WL 216394 (Minn. App. Jan. 22, 2013)(unpublished). The Hennepin County District Court denied the post-conviction petition and the appellate court affirmed.

Plea withdrawal would not be in the “interest of justice” because the defendant’s claims all related to events that occurred before or during his plea hearing eight years ago.  Because he knew, or should have known, about these issues at that time, his subjective, lack of knowledge is irrelevant.

Moreover, the petition for postconviction relief was filed in July 2011, some six years after the plea was entered into.  This exceeds the two-year limitation period for a post-conviction hearing and, therefore, was time barred.

Consent considered

A man who pled guilty to first-degree and third-degree charges of criminal sexual conduct, pursuant to a plea agreement, was unsuccessful in attempting to withdraw the plea in State v. Ballesteros, 2013 WL 216326 (Minn. App. Jan. 22, 2013)(unpublished).

The Clay County District Court, which accepted the plea agreement that allowed the defendant to receive a presumptive sentence that was only half as long as the recommended sentence for the charges of first degree and third degree criminal sexual conduct involving a young girl, denied the effort to withdraw the plea before sentencing.

The appellate court affirmed, rejecting the defendant’s argument that the plea was inappropriate because there was an inaccurate factual basis for it.  The defendant’s argument that there was some type of consent by the young girl, who was about five years old at the time of the incident, was rebuffed because the “mental capacity of a five to six year old child makes that child unable to withhold or withdraw consent.”  Therefore, the lower court did not err by upholding the plea on grounds that it was voluntary and accurate.

Collateral case

The three concurrent cases preceded another rejection of a plea withdrawal due to collateral consequences in State v. Crump, 2013 WL 776782 (Minn. App. March 4, 2013)(Unpublished).  The defendant entered  a pre-sentence plea to fleeing a police officer  charge in Hennepin County District Court and later sought to withdraw when charged with a DWI offense arising out of a separate prior incident. The fleeing plea could have adversely affected the potential conviction and sentencing on the new  charge.

The Hennepin County District Court rejected the pre-sentence argument that the defendant’s plea was not intelligently made because he was unaware of the subsequent charge.  The appellate court  affirmed, holding that the potential effect of a plea on a sentence for a future unrelated criminal charge is a “collateral consequence.”

Under established case law of the U.S. Supreme Court and Minnesota Supreme Court that type of occurrence, even if unknown at the time, does not render a plea “unintelligent” or invalid.

Criminal defendants who seek to withdraw guilty pleas are odds-on favorites to lose.  But, for most of them, they have little to lose by trying and, of course, much to gain if they manage to succeed against all odds.

Originially published in the May 20, 2013 edition of Minnesota Lawyer.