Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Striking Out

State v. Fucci, 2015 VT 39

By Timothy Fair

In honor of my hometown team making it to the World Series, this installment of SCOV Law is dedicated to our favorite perpetual underdogs, the N.Y. Mets

Today’s case involves a rather familiar issue for the Court: the validity of a plea agreement. The story begins with Mr. Fucci being involved in a civil lawsuit, but then takes a rather Grisham-esque turn. While the details of the original civil litigation are not available, one can assume that Mr. Fucci was not doing so well based on the allegation that at some point in the proceedings he decided to try and hire a hitman to take out a witness for the other side. 

Not the smartest play, because as it turns out, the hitman who Mr. Fucci attempted to hire was actually a confidential informant working for law enforcement. Next thing you know, Mr. Fuccifound himself behind in the count, charged with attempted first-degree murder and inciting to felony. The State eventually amended the charges, and Mr. Fucci eventually found himself facing two counts of inciting to felony and one count of obstruction of justice. On March 15, 2013, as part of a negotiated plea deal, Mr. Fucci pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 10-15 years imprisonment. This appeal follows.

On appeal, Mr. Fucci raises three issues that he argues invalidates the plea agreement: (1) the State failed to establish jurisdiction overt the matter; (2) the plea was unsupported by a factual basis; and (3) the State failed to establish the necessary state of mind to constitute a valid plea to obstruction of justice. SCOV addresses each claim in turn.

The first pitch: Mr. Fucci’s first claim is strictly a procedural one, in effect he claims that since he never admitted that he tried to hire the hitman in Vermont during the plea colloquy, the court lacked the jurisdiction to accept his plea and find him guilty. SCOV takes one paragraph to dismiss this claim, accurately stating that while a plea colloquy must contain the elements of the crime being pled guilty to, the location of the alleged crime is not an element of obstruction of justice, and thus is not required to be admitted to or acknowledged during the change of plea. Strike One.

The second pitch: Mr. Fucci’s next claim is that the State failed to provide the requisite factual basis at the change-of-plea hearing, and therefore the plea deal was invalid. SCOV takes a few more paragraphs to address, and ultimately dismiss, this claim as well. Under Vermont law, the State must present a factual basis for the charges in order for a defendant’s guilty plea to be considered voluntary. This ensures that any guilty plea being entered into by a defendant is actually warranted by underlying facts. Here, Mr. Fucci argues semantics, claiming that the fact that he believed he had made an agreement with the informant to kill someone, did not constitute an attempt to obstruct justice. SCOV balks at this claim, holding that the fact the Mr. Fucci believed he had reached an agreement provided a sufficient factual basis to constitute an attempt. Thus, the factual basis for the guilty plea was enough to find the plea voluntary.

Strike Two.

The third pitch: finally, Mr. Fucci claims that the State did not establish the proper mens rea, or state of mind, for a voluntary plea to obstruction of justice. In similar fashion to the proper factual basis, the State must demonstrate that the individual entering a guilty plea had the requisite intent to commit the crime they are pleading guilty to. In this case, the charge of obstruction of justice requires that the defendant have knowledge that his actions are likely to affect a judicial proceeding. As an alternative, some courts have held that the defendant must have knowledge that his actions will interfere with a judicial proceeding. In its dismissal of this claim of error, SCOV holds that under either of these definitions, or under any definition actually, the act of knowingly attempting to hire a hitman to kill an opposing party in a civil lawsuit, sufficiently demonstrates the requisite mental state necessary to support a voluntary plea of guilty. To put it more succinctly, a defendant’s intent can be inferred from the nature of his acts. In this case, SCOV concludes that attempting to hire a hitman was certainly sufficient to demonstrate intent.

Strike Three. And Mr. Fucci is out. SCOV upholds the findings of the change-of-plea court, and confirms that Mr. Fucci’s guilty plea was voluntary and the proceeding valid.

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