This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
John Charles Sandon,
Blue Earth County District Court
File No. KX012067
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Ross Arneson, Blue Earth County Attorney, Douglas Sinclair, Assistant County Attorney, 410 South Fifth Street, P.O. Box 3129, Mankato, MN 56002-3129 (for respondent)
Allen P. Eskens, Eskens, Gibson & Behm Law Firm, Chtd., 115 East Hickory Street, Suite 200, Mankato, MN 56002 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Stoneburner, Judge, and Minge, Judge.
The district court denied appellant’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. Because the record discloses that (1) the relationship between appellant and his attorney had broken down; (2) the plea was hedged, equivocal, and reluctant; (3) the withdrawal request was first made within two hours after the plea was entered; (4) there was an apparent denial of appellant’s right to counsel; and (5) there is no claim or finding that allowing withdrawal of the plea would be prejudicial to the state, we reverse.
Appellant John Sandon was charged with domestic assault, fifth-degree assault, and interference with a 911 call. Six months later, he pleaded guilty to fifth-degree assault, and within two hours tried to withdraw his plea in a pro se meeting with the judge. Six days later the court conducted a hearing on a request to withdraw the plea and denied the request. After sentencing, appellant appealed the denial of his request to withdraw his guilty plea.
We must determine whether it was fair and just to allow appellant to withdraw his guilty plea. We will reverse the district court’s denial of a withdrawal of a guilty plea only if the district court abused its discretion. Barragan v. State, 583 N.W.2d 571, 572 (Minn. 1998). A defendant has no absolute right to withdraw his plea once it is entered. Alanis v. State, 583 N.W.2d 573, 577 (Minn. 1998). Public policy supports the finality of judgments and thus courts
“are not disposed to encourage accused persons to ‘play games’ with the courts * * *” by setting aside judgments of conviction based upon pleas made with deliberation and accepted by the court with caution.
Chapman v. State, 282 Minn. 13, 16, 162 N.W.2d 698, 700 (1968) (quoting Everett v. United States,336 F.2d 979, 984 (D.C. Cir. 1964)).
Having said that there is no absolute right to withdraw a plea, Minnesota does allow for the withdrawal of a guilty plea in certain circumstances. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 1 (allowing a withdrawal to correct a manifest injustice); Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 2 (allowing a withdrawal before sentencing if it is fair and just to do so). Withdrawal of a plea to correct a manifest injustice is allowed if the plea is not accurate, voluntary, and intelligently entered. Alanis, 583 N.W.2d at 577; Perkins v. State, 559 N.W.2d 678, 688 (Minn. 1997).
Although the record in this case is short, it is replete with examples of problems the appellant had with his initial attorney, of doubts he had about his guilt, and of his reluctance to plead guilty. Appellant contends that his plea was not voluntarily made as evidenced by the efforts of his initial attorney to withdraw from the case, the refusal of his initial attorney to answer his questions about the guilty plea, and the refusal of the district court to allow the withdrawal of the attorney or to recognize that appellant was not receiving effective legal assistance. Appellant also stated that there was no agreement between appellant and counsel about appellant’s plea and that he was coerced into pleading guilty because of statements made by the court. The court specifically stated that it did not care what conflict appellant had with his counsel and suggested counsel’s request to withdraw was based on appellant’s conduct. In addition, when appellant claimed that he could not afford to hire another attorney, the court told appellant that a public defender was not available adding, “so you’re either gonna be with [your present counsel] or you’re gonna have to represent yourself.”
The question here is whether the acrimonious relationship between appellant and his counsel and his counsel’s efforts to withdraw effectively denied appellant his right to counsel, thus making it impossible for him to voluntarily plead guilty. A defendant is constitutionally entitled to representation. U.S. Const. amend. VI (stating “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall * * * have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense”); Minn. Const. art. I, § 6) (stating “[i]n all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right * * * to have the assistance of counsel in his defense”). A defendant is also entitled to a court inquiry into his financial eligibility for the appointment of counsel. Minn. R. Crim. P. 5.02, subd. 4. A defendant is entitled to counsel if he is “not represented by counsel and is financially unable to afford counsel.” Minn. R. Crim. P. 5.02, subd. 1(2). Here, the court simply told appellant he would not have access to a public defender. It actively discouraged appellant from seeking a trial or a lawyer without inquiring into appellant’s financial affairs to determine if he could hire another attorney.
The court also implied there was a delay in the court proceedings caused by appellant and that appellant backed out of a plea agreement. There is no evidence that appellant had accepted a plea agreement. While appellant testified at the hearing that he had the Rule 15 petition in his possession for approximately seven to ten days, he also testified he had not signed it because he could not decide what to do, he had not reviewed the petition with counsel, and he had questions about the plea. The record also indicates that concerns over the court’s trial schedule impacted appellant’s decision to plead guilty. Because there was a short period of time until a trial would be scheduled, appellant was concerned about his inability to obtain different counsel before trial. Coupled with the court’s refusal to allow counsel to withdraw, the time pressure for a trial denied appellant his right to locate replacement counsel and, in effect, forced him to plead guilty.
Appellant also contends that his guilty plea was not supported by the facts. A plea must have a firm factual basis. State v. Ecker, 524 N.W.2d 712, 716 (Minn. 1994). Appellant was charged with assault in the fifth degree, which requires “intent to cause fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death.” Minn. Stat. § 609.224, subd. 1 (2000). Appellant contends that his actions were precipitated by the victim kneeing him in the groin and that he acted in self-defense and lacked the requisite intent required by the assault statute. Although appellant discussed self-defense with the court and agreed to plead guilty, he continued to contend that he was acting in self-defense. At the sentencing hearing, appellant again stated he regretted the incident but that he was defending himself.
From the record, it appears that while appellant was agreeing to a guilty plea, he was simultaneously telling the court that he was not guilty. This court has found that it is possible for a defendant to plead guilty without unequivocally admitting his guilt. Ecker, 524 N.W.2d at 716 (citing North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 37, 91 S. Ct. 160, 167 (1970)). But the defendant must make the choice to plead guilty because he “reasonably believes, and the record establishes, the state has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.” Id. Here appellant’s decision to plead guilty was not a result of the evidence against him. Instead, he denies that he initiated the altercation and contends that he was acting in self-defense.
It is clear from the record that the relationship between appellant and his counsel was acrimonious, that appellant felt he was not receiving any guidance from his counsel, and that appellant believed he had no choice but to plead guilty. Because appellant’s guilty plea was hedged, equivocal, and reluctant, and because it appears appellant was not receiving guidance from counsel, the district court abused its discretion by refusing to allow appellant to withdraw his guilty plea.
The rules of criminal procedure also allow for withdrawal of a plea before sentencing if the request is timely and the withdrawal is “fair and just.” Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 2. In determining whether a request to withdraw is “fair and just,” this rule provides that the district court
is to give due consideration not just to the reasons advanced by the defendant but to “any prejudice the granting of the motion would cause the prosecution by reason of actions taken in reliance upon the defendant’s plea.”
Kim v. State, 434 N.W.2d 263, 266 (Minn. 1989) (quoting Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 2); accord State v. Kaiser, 469 N.W.2d 316, 319 (Minn. 1991). As in a claim of manifest injustice, whether to allow the withdrawal of the plea is left to the discretion of the district court, and this court will reverse the district court decision only if the district court has abused its discretion. Id. at 320.
Here, appellant requested that the court allow him to withdraw his guilty plea on two separate occasions. The first request was within two hours of the initial hearing; the second request was six days later, after appellant had a new attorney. On both occasions, appellant pointed to his problems with his initial attorney and his resulting confusion as evidence that his guilty plea should be withdrawn.
From the record, it appears that appellant’s plea was hedged, equivocal, and reluctant. To determine whether it is just and fair to allow a guilty plea to be withdrawn, the district court should not only consider the reasons advanced by the defendant, but also “any prejudice the granting of the motion would cause the prosecution by reason of actions taken in reliance upon the defendant’s plea.” Kim, 434 N.W.2d at 266 (quoting Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 2). There is no claim that appellant’s request to withdraw his guilty plea within two hours of the plea submission prejudiced the prosecution. It does not appear the prosecutor had invested significant time in the case or was otherwise prepared to proceed to trial. Certainly no witnesses had been called. Appellant never fully admitted his guilt and repeatedly contended that his actions were in self-defense. Accordingly, the district court abused its discretion by refusing to allow appellant to withdraw his guilty plea.