State v. Timonty L. Finley, Jr., 2014A2488-CR, petition for review granted 1/11/16

Review of a published court of appeals decision; case activity (including briefs)

Issue (from the State’s petition for review)

When a defendant who pleads guilty or no contest is misinformed that the maximum penalty that could be imposed is lower than the maximum actually allowed by law, and the sentence imposed is more than the defendant was told he could get, is the defendant entitled to withdraw his plea, or may the defect be remedied instead by reducing the sentence to the maximum the defendant was informed he could receive?

We won’t repeat here the lengthy history of this case and the substance of the court of appeals decision, all of which is detailed in our post on that decision. For purpose of this post, the important thing to know is that Finley was told he faced 19.5 years in prison when he really faced 23.5 years. When the judge gave him 23.5 at sentencing, he moved to withdraw his plea. The trial court denied plea withdrawal, and instead commuted his sentence to 19.5 years, the amount he was told (wrongly) he could receive. The state argued that remedy was just fine under State v. Taylor, 2013 WI 34, 347 Wis. 2d 30, 829 N.W.2d 482, and State v. Cross, 2010 WI 70, ¶32, 326 Wis. 2d 492, 786 N.W.2d 64, because a plea is valid so long as the defendant understood at the time of the plea he could receive the sentence actually imposed on him: “There is no manifest injustice, no fundamental unfairness, no due process violation when a defendant gets a sentence he knew he could get when he entered his plea.” (PFR at 12).

While Taylor seems to lend a whiff of legitimacy to the state’s argument, the court of appeals’ carefully analyzed the factual and legal differences between that case and Finley’s and concluded that “the State’s proposed standard relying on the defendant’s knowledge of the maximum sentence actually imposed (at least eventually) conflates Taylor’s analysis of whether the defendant’s plea was entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily, and Taylor’s analysis of whether the defendant was entitled to plea withdrawal on some other basis of manifest injustice.” (2015 WI App 79, ¶34). The court of appeals’ analysis in this case is careful and compelling; but the problem is that, as described elsewhere, Taylor is a confusing mess (indeed, at certain points it’s logically incoherent) that magnified the uncertainties left by Cross. Only the supreme court can clean up the mess those cases made, though it remains to be seen whether the court does clean up the mess by restoring the clear plea withdrawal law that existed before Cross and Taylor; whether it adopts the State’s argument that commutation rather than plea withdrawal is the appropriate remedy; or whether we get yet another confused and confusing decision that merely rearranges the wreckage. Clearly, then, this will be an important decision that will affect how we litigate plea withdrawal claims.