Saturday, May 19, 2018

Unstated Intent

Need to shed some light here.
In re Cynthia Pinheiro, 2018 VT 50

By Elizabeth Kruska

Ms. Pinheiro filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) based on a defective plea colloquy. Specifically, her position was that during the plea colloquy where she pled guilty to an assault charge, the trial court didn’t identify the mental element of the crime.

Backing up. In 2014 Ms. Pinheiro pled guilty to aggravated domestic assault for shooting her ex-boyfriend in the leg. When a defendant pleads guilty to a criminal charge, the trial court has to go through a colloquy with the defendant. This is done so that it’s clear that the defendant knows he or she is giving up his or her Sixth Amendment trial rights and in some cases, appeal rights. The court has to be satisfied there are actual facts to back up the charge. Generally, this must be done in open court and the defendant must acknowledge that she is giving up these rights and the facts.

Here, the court asked the State’s Attorney to indicate on the record what it would have to prove at trial, and the facts backing it up. There was some discussion, and in this, the court never advised Ms. Pinheiro of the mental element of the charge she faced.

For a crime, generally, you need an act and a mental state. The mental state is an element, just as much as any action. At trial, the state has to prove that at the time the crime was committed, every element was present, and that they were all present at the same time. For a guilty plea to be valid, the defendant must acknowledge the same, and waive the right for the state to prove it at trial.

During this plea colloquy, the judge asked Ms. Pinheiro what happened, and she started to explain something. She and her lawyer then talked, and it’s not clear if it was meant to be private or meant to be an open conversation on the record. In any case, the judge found that there were sufficient facts to form the basis of the plea, and sentenced her.

Ms. Pinheiro filed a PCR based on a number of issues, including the mental element issue described above. The state filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court basically denied the PCR motion, saying the court substantially complied with the requirements of V.R.Cr.P. 11, and that the plea colloquy was fine. The court granted the state’s motion.

Ms. Pinheiro appeals, and SCOV agrees with her, reversing the trial court’s finding of summary judgment for the state.

When is summary judgment appropriate? Funny you should ask! I can tell you. It’s when there is no genuine issue of material fact, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. When SCOV reviews summary judgment, it uses the same standard as the trial court because it’s a review of law.

SCOV was concerned that there was nothing in the record to assure that Ms. Pinheiro understood the mental element the state would be required to prove at trial. SCOV takes that, plus other information in the record, to assume that she didn’t understand the mental element required. Because there is no assurance the defendant actually fully knew this, SCOV can’t agree that her plea was voluntarily given.

Generally, the court applies the “substantial compliance” standard to the rule regarding the plea colloquy. That’s because there are times when a court can infer a defendant’s understanding of an element or a fact. But if the record leaves any doubt about whether a defendant understood the charge at the time of the plea, post conviction relief is appropriate. In other words, hyper-technical compliance with the rule isn’t required, but if it isn’t clear that the defendant understood the major portions of the proceeding, the plea cannot stand.

In this case, the record just didn’t include anything about the mental state. Even though Ms. Pinheiro stated she shot her ex-boyfriend, her words left “considerable doubt” about her mental state in doing the shooting. SCOV finds that the court should have reviewed with her the mental element and what the state would have had to prove in proving that particular element.

So, since this piece was missing, SCOV reverses the summary judgment finding in the PCR and orders that Ms. Pinheiro’s petition should be granted.

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