Attacking the Guilty Plea: The Guilty Plea Hearing

It used to be that the events leading up to a guilty played out in secret. The prosecutor and the defense would get together and hammer out a deal where the defendant would agree to plead guilty in exchange for some concessions. Maybe there were some promises made, and maybe there were some threats. But everyone would go before the court and say none of this happened and the court would accept the guilty plea. It was all lies and everyone knew it. And it worked this was for a long time.

The Importance of the Guilty Plea Hearing

When defendants would challenge their guilty pleas, claiming there were threats and promises made, there was noting to refute their claims. There was no record of any plea negotiations other than maybe a cookie-cutter form used in every case, with the defendant saying that he was guilty and that the plea was a knowing and voluntary decision.

When one of these cases made it to the Supreme Court in Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 64 (1977), the Court stressed the importance of the guilty plea hearing — especially the statements made by a defendant at that hearing. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 provides a template a court must follow when conducting a guilty plea hearing. The Court said that a defendant`s statements at this hearing create a “formidable barrier” to any challenge to the guilty plea, and “solemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity.”

This declaration by the High Court has been quoted countless times by courts denying challenges to guilty pleas, and you`d think the Supreme Court ruled against Allison, the defendant in that case. In fact, he won, the court acknowledging that no method of ensuring a guilty plea is knowing and voluntary is so “perfect” as to avoid a challenge, and that this formidable barrier is “not invariably insurmountable.”

No Per Se Rule that Plea Hearing Statements Foreclose Relief

Because the guilty plea hearing is not a perfect method for ensuring that a guilty plea is knowing and voluntary, Blackledge instructed that a court may not adopt a pre se rule that a defendant`s statements at the plea hearing automatically foreclose any challenge to his guilty plea.

Blackledge was in 1977 and, four decades later, courts are still denying challenges to guilty pleas simply based on the statements made at the guilty plea hearing. It would seem the courts are ignoring the Supreme Court`s mandate in Blackledge. But a closer look shows the real problem: Courts in the cases are almost always relying on case law foreclosing direct challenges to guilty pleas, and most guilty plea challenges are collateral attacks (i.e., habeas corpus petitions). There`s a big difference between the two!

A direct challenge to a guilty plea would go something like this: A defendant pled guilty and admitted his criminal conduct at the plea hearing, a common occurrence. On direct appeal, he brings a challenge to his plea that he`s not really guilty of his crime because of errors in his case. The court then points to his statements made at the plea hearing that he in fact committed the crime and thus rejects his challenge.

But things are different in a collateral attack on a guilty plea. As the name implies, a collateral attack cannot be a direct attack on the plea. The Supreme Court has explained that in a collateral attack on a guilty plea, a prisoner “may only attack the voluntary and intelligent character of the guilty plea by showing that the advice he received from counsel” was wrong. Tollet v. Henderson, 411 U.S. 258 (1973).

It`s all about the advice to plead guilty, and not about the plea itself, in a collateral attack on a guilty plea.

Some courts have correctly recognized this distinction. In Tovar Mendoza v. Hatch, 620 F.3d 1261 (10th Cir. 2010), the court reversed the denial of a collateral attack on a guilty plea because the district court relied entirely on the defendant`s statements at the guilty plea hearing. “The district court`s conclusion overlooks the fact that Tovar`s responses during the plea colloquy were … a courtroom ritual more sham than real,” the court said, finding that Tovar`s lawyer had coached him on what to say at the hearing so the court would accept his bogus guilty plea.

One important point about Tovar`s case is that he made specific, factual allegations in his claims, which required the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing. This required Tovar`s lawyer to make statements on the record and developed the record further for the eventual appeal. So when the case came before the Tenth Circuit, it had a full record to go on. Often, that`s not the case in a collateral (habeas) case on appeal.

Always point to facts outside the criminal record in a habeas petition (or sec 2255 motion) to force the court into holding a hearing to develop the record on your claims.

I go into more detail about the guilty plea hearing in my book, Attacking the Guilty Plea: An Insider`s Guide, providing much more information on cases that have successfully challenged guilty pleas in the face of damning statements made at the guilty plea hearing.

Note: This information is adapted from my column in the March 2020 issue of Criminal Legal News Magazine, titled “Attacking the Guilty Plea: The Voluntarily and Knowingly Made Standard.”

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