Guilty Plea Procedure – Defendant’s Denial of Element / Manifest Injustice
Issues (composed by On Point):
1. Whether, if a defendant at the guilty-plea proceeding explicitly denies the existence of an elemental fact, the trial court must decline to accept the plea.
2. Whether, notwithstanding erroneous acceptance of a guilty plea in the face of the defendant’s denial of an element, the defendant’s subsequent admission of the element at sentencing operates to cure the error.
Cain was charged with “manufacturing” a minimum of 5 marijuana plants (a Class H felony; fewer than 5 plants = Class I). At the plea proceeding, he was informed of the Class H threshold, but he explicitly said he had 4 plants, a discrepancy court and counsel ignored and Cain didn’t press. Counsel stipulated to the complaint, which alleged 16 plants, so there was a factual basis. The court of appeals held that the trial court was required to reject the plea when Cain explicitly denied this offense element. (The number of plants might be thought a penalty enhancer, but the court quite properly treats it as an element, because “the fact is one on which Cain has a right to jury trial,” ¶26 n. 9.) However, at sentencing a couple of months later, Cain explicitly admitted having 5 plants, an amount which cleared the Class H threshold – this admission, the court held, amounted to “a subsequent, direct admission to the elemental fact before the court pronounces sentence. This was an explicit ratification of the plea,” ¶42. Therefore, “Cain did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that withdrawal of the no contest plea is necessary to correct a manifest injustice,” id. We’ll see. Interesting problem, ably discussed by the court of appeals, whether or not you agree with its ultimate conclusion.