Friday, March 31st, 2006

State Misdemeanor Plea Vacated: Record of Allocution Failed to Show Knowing and Voluntary Waiver of Trial Rights

Hanson v. Phillips, Docket No. 04-0940-pr (2d Cir. March 30, 2006) (Leval, Straub, Katzmann): An astonishingly good result for Mr. Hanson (and perhaps for thousands of fellow travelers in the New York State courts): The Circuit grants Hanson’s § 2254 petition because the record of his state guilty plea (to a misdemeanor charge of criminal contempt in the 2d degree in an Orange County city court, for which he was ultimately sentenced to 15 days in the county pen and 3 years’ probation) failed to “affirmatively disclose that [he] intelligently and voluntarily pleaded guilty,” as required under Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969). For those interested, the plea allocution is quoted in full at pages 3 to 6 of the opinion. It is undeniably bare bones — not even close to the full Rule 11 colloquy required in federal court. And Boykin undeniably stands for the proposition that “the record on appeal must affirmatively disclose that a defendant who pleaded guilty entered his plea understandingly and voluntarily.” Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 747 n.4 (1970).

The Court concluded that the state courts unreasonably applied Boykin in affirming Hanson’s conviction and thus granted the writ even under AEDPA’s deferential standard. The Circuit found “the record deficient in establishing both the defendant’s understanding of the immensely important procedural step he was taking and that he was acting voluntarily. . . . Nothing in the record affirmatively discloses Hanson’s awareness that he had the right to have his guilt determined at a trial and that by pleading guilty he was giving up that right. Nor does the record affirmatively disclose that Hanson voluntarily chose to plead guilty.” Op. 17-18. Those interested in the nitty-gritties of the Court’s application of the Boykin standard to Hanson’s plea should consult pages 18 to 21 of the decision.

Interestingly, after reaching this conclusion, the Circuit spent several pages trying to assure the law-abiding public that its decision will not open a floodgate for similar claims. First, it repeatedly stated that “no particular form or script is required” and that “state courts have considerable leeway to establish a record in whatever reasonable manner they see fit,” so long as Boykin‘s basic requirement (of a record affirmatively disclosing that the defendant made his plea intelligently and voluntarily) is met. Op.21-22. Second, the Court averred that Hanson’s barebones plea was an anomaly even in the state system, stating “we are persuaded that it is the common and general practice of New York judges to engage pleading defendants in colloquies . . . that, though various in style, are sufficient to meet the minimal requirements imposed by the federal constitution.” Op.23.

This Blog is not so sure, having seen a few skeletal state allocutions in our time. But what do we know — like the Court, “our view of the wide expanse of New York pleading practice is necessarily limited.” Op. 23. Unlike the Court, though, this defendant-friendly Blog hopes the Court’s assessment of the likely effect of its decision is wrong — open those floodgates!

The Circuit also denied the State’s motion to dismiss Hanson’s appeal under the fugitive disentitlement doctrine, and the opinion has an interesting discussion of the issue. Apparently, Hanson was tried on unrelated charges in state court, and fled before sentencing, while the appeal in the instant habeas proceeding was pending in the Circuit. He was apprehended within two months, however, and was then convicted of bail jumping in state court and sentenced to 1 1/2 to 4 years.

The Circuit refused to dismiss his appeal under these circumstances, concluding that because Hanson “is now in custody and has been prosecuted and sentenced for bail jumping, all of the justifications for disentitlement militate against dismissing this appeal.” Op.11 (listing four justifications for fugitive disentitlement doctrine).

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