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Defendant Was Confused About Plea Deal, Motion To Withdraw Improperly Denied

Posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Where a defendant pleaded guilty to various driving offenses and the trial court denied his motion to withdraw the guilty plea, the case must be remanded because the record shows the defendant was confused about the conditions under which he pleaded guilty, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In People v Brinkey (Docket No. 342419), the Court of Appeals explained it is “axiomatic” that there be an “actual agreement on the essential features of the plea” for a plea agreement to be valid. “When there are multiple proposed plea agreements and hearings, as here, reference to a ‘prior plea’ will likely be ambiguous and require some clarification on the record, unlike as here,” the Court said.

Because the underlying record in this case confirmed a “lack of clarity” regarding the essential features of the plea agreement, specifically the sentencing parameters, the Court of Appeals said the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea.

“[W]e reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the Court of Appeals held.

Motion Denied

The defendant pleaded guilty to: 1) operating while intoxicated (OWI), third offense (MCL 257.625); 2) driving while license suspended (DWLS), second offense (MCL 257.904); and 3) unlawful use of a license plate (MCL 257.256). The Macomb County Circuit Court sentenced the defendant as a fourth-offense habitual offender to 2 to 25 years imprisonment for the OWI conviction and one day, time served, for the DWLS and unlawful use of a license plate convictions.

At the defendant’s initial plea hearing, defense counsel and the prosecutor said they believed the requirements of MCR 6.302 had been met. The defendant pleaded guilty and the trial court told the defendant that if it was not going to comply with the sentence recommendation in his presentence investigation report (PSIR), it would let the defendant withdraw his guilty plea. After informing the defendant that it would not comply with the sentence recommendation in the PSIR, the trial court allowed the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea on April 20, 2017.

A pretrial hearing was held May 10, 2017. At this hearing, the trial court noted the parties and the court had reached an agreement pursuant to People v Cobbs, 443 Mich 276 (1993), known as a “Cobbs agreement.” Under a Cobbs agreement, a judge and a defendant enter into an agreement concerning the sentence that will be imposed if the defendant pleads guilty. In this case, the trial court referred to it as the “Cobbs cap” and informed the defendant the Cobbs cap would prevent his minimum sentence from exceeding two years.

The defendant then pleaded guilty at a second hearing on June 7, 2017. However, at this second hearing, the trial court simply asked defendant if he “want[ed] to reinstate [his] prior plea.” To this question, the defendant responded, “Yes, with the understanding that I could get an updated PSIR.” The trial court agreed the defendant could get a new PSIR.

At no time after the first plea hearing did the trial court again inform the defendant of his rights. Also, at the second plea hearing, the term “prior plea” was never defined and there was no discussion about the Cobbs cap.

The second sentencing hearing was held June 27, 2017. As soon as the trial court sentenced the defendant, he stated that he wanted to withdraw his plea because the trial court “didn’t agree with the sentence, with the recommendation.” When the trial court said the defendant requested a two-year Cobbs agreement, the defendant responded that he “never pled guilty to this.” The trial court denied the defendant’s subsequent motion to withdraw his plea.

The defendant appealed. On appeal, he only contested the validity of the second plea hearing.

Plea Process

The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court should not have denied his motion to withdraw the guilty plea.

In its analysis, the Court of Appeals examined the plea agreement process, noting that a plea must satisfy the voluntary, understanding and accurate components of MCR 6.302(A). In addition, under MCR 6.310(C), “a defendant seeking to withdraw his or her plea after sentencing must demonstrate a defect in the plea-taking process,” the Court said.

Next, the Court of Appeals turned to the defendant’s Cobbs agreement. “Under a Cobbs agreement, a defendant is permitted to withdraw his or her guilty plea ‘in the event that the trial court determines that it must exceed the preliminary evaluation,’” the Court said, noting that

MCR 6.302 is “silent” on Cobbs agreements.

The Court of Appeals also looked to People v Plumaj, 284 Mich App 645 (2009), and People v Kosecki, 73 Mich App 293 (1977), for guidance. In Plumaj, the appellate court said that while strict compliance with MCR 6.302 is not essential, a defendant’s plea must always be understanding, voluntary and accurate. In Kosecki, the appellate court affirmed a defendant’s plea-based conviction because “only two weeks had passed between the defendant’s first and second guilty pleas, [and] there was ‘no indication that defendant offered his original plea in ignorance of its consequences.’”

According to the Court of Appeals, unlike Plumaj and Kosecki, in this case the defendant’s first guilty plea was controlled by the original plea agreement while, “at least in the trial court’s opinion,” his second guilty plea was controlled by the Cobbs agreement.

Further, although the trial court clarified the terms of the Cobbs agreement when the defendant reinstated his “prior plea” at the second hearing, what the defendant and the trial court each meant by the phrase “prior plea” was never addressed, the Court of Appeals explained. In addition, the trial court failed to inform the defendant of his rights at the second plea hearing, the Court pointed out.

“Thus, like in Plumaj, the trial court failed to comply strictly with the requirements of MCR 6.302,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Because strict compliance with MCR 6.302 is not essential, however, whether defendant’s second guilty plea should be set aside hinges on the nature of the trial court’s noncompliance with the requirements of the court rule and whether defendant’s second guilty plea was understandingly, knowingly, voluntarily, and accurately made.”

State Of Confusion

The defendant’s confusion at the second hearing was “apparent” from a review of the record, the Court of Appeals stated.

“At the second plea hearing, the trial court simply asked defendant if he wished to reinstate his ‘prior plea,’” the Court of Appeals explained. “Although the trial court never explained what it meant by ‘prior plea,’ defendant’s understanding of ‘prior plea’ is apparent from his response. As soon as the trial court issued defendant’s sentence, defendant stated that he wanted to withdraw his plea because the trial court ‘didn’t agree with the sentence, with the recommendation.’ When the trial court stated that defendant requested the … Cobbs cap, defendant replied that he ‘never pled guilty to this.’”

Therefore, “it does not appear that defendant was fully aware of the direct consequences of his second guilty plea and, therefore, defendant’s second guilty plea was not understandingly, knowingly, voluntarily, and accurately made,” the Court of Appeals stated.

Moreover, “the nature of the trial court’s noncompliance is serious … because it appears from the record before us that the trial court made no effort to ensure that defendant actually knew and understood that he was pleading guilty under the conditions established by the Cobbs cap instead of the conditions of the original agreement,” the Court of Appeals observed. “Because defendant’s second guilty plea was not understandingly, knowingly, voluntarily, and accurately made, the trial court abused its discretion by denying defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held the record demonstrated a “lack of clarity” regarding the sentencing parameters of the plea agreement. As a result, the trial court abused its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea.

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