Monday, October 28, 2013

13 Paragraphs to View a Plea

State v. Mutwale, 2013 VT 61

Some law simply has a limited shelf life. 

Today’s hot button issue is tomorrow’s resolved dispute. 

When the SCOV dedicates decision after decision to flushing out an area of law, one result is that the uncertainties go away and the challenges become fewer to the point where the succeeding challenges are left with little ground and quickly dissolve in short and brief decisions. 

About eight years ago there was a substantial issue about plea bargains, collateral consequences, and non-citizens.  The federal government had adopted statutes and regulations that revoked a non-citizen’s immigration or naturalization status if he or she was convicted of a violent crime. 

What constituted a violent crime was somewhat ambiguous.  Murder, certainly, but certain domestic assaults were also included.  Other crimes, if they demonstrated violent actions, might also bring around the federales. 

In some cases, Defendants were swept into INS custody minutes after leaving the courthouse, literally packed into a van around the corner from the front steps.  The problem became that the list of deportable crimes was and is controlled and administered by the Feds while the criminal processing (arraignment, plea bargaining, and sentencing) was and is under the direction of the State and County. 

The result was a number of plea bargains that purchased the defendant a real-life version of Crossing Over minus Harrison Ford. 

The problem for the system is that in the beginning most defendants, defense counsels, prosecutors, and judges were unaware of this substantial collateral consequence.  Most of the early cases that really dissected the issue dealt with individuals who had plead guilty to minimize their risk of imprisonment, only to learn that the year in jail they had avoided had cost them, without warning, their entire lives in this country. 

That violated the purpose of court sentencing in plea bargains.  The trial court’s role in such instances is to make sure that the Defendant knowingly and voluntarily enters into the plea deal.  Unstated or mutually unanticipated consequences of a plea are often grounds to setting such a deal aside or for the court to reject a plea agreement. 

In the wake of these cases, the trial courts began incorporating this warning into their review of plea agreements.  The result, as we see today, is that defendants are put on notice. 

This means that no matter how severe the consequence or deportation, the plea will not be set aside because the defendant has been warned. 

In this case, Defendant was explicitly warned by the trial court that the plea deal could lead to his deportation or denial of citizenship.  Defendant acknowledged this risk but chose to go ahead with the plea.  When Defendant was faced with immigration consequence, he sought to withdraw his plea.  The SCOV rejects this move.  Defendant had his warning, and that is enough to uphold the plea. 

So Defendant must live with the bargain he struck, buyer’s remorse is relegated to a small part of the pantomime.  But what is interesting is that the issue at the heart of this case, collateral consequences to non-citizens, has become self-evident—a non-issue that barely gives the SCOV pause.

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