Monday, February 9, 2009

Roberts v. State[1]

Opinion handed down February 10, 2009
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed a trial court decision rejecting a defendant’s motion for post-conviction relief without an evidentiary hearing. The defendant’s motion stemmed from an alleged misunderstanding in the negotiation of his plea agreement. In its decision, the Court voiced a disfavored view of group pleas, holding that the defendant’s appeal would have failed but for the fact that his plea was entered in a group plea with eight other unrelated defendants. In dicta, the Court indicated that group plea mechanisms, often used to promote judicial economy, are disfavored because they may be less likely to fulfill due process requirements. Though it stopped short of invalidating the practice, the decision suggests the Supreme Court of Missouri and other Missouri appellate courts will analyze motions for post-conviction relief derived from a group plea setting more closely in the future.

I. Facts & Holding

Defendant Gary Roberts ("Roberts" or "defendant") pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of controlled substances; methamphetamines and diazepam.[2] Roberts pleaded guilty at a group plea hearing of eight unrelated defendants, all represented by the same public defender and all formally accepting guilty pleas negotiated earlier with the prosecutor.[3] After he pleaded guilty, Roberts sought post-conviction relief, arguing that his plea was defective because, during the hearing, the State changed the plea agreement Roberts had accepted in pretrial negotiations.[4] Furthermore, Roberts argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney did not object when the prosecutor changed the plea agreement during the hearing.

The trial court rejected Roberts’ motion for relief without an evidentiary hearing, finding that the hearing record refuted Roberts’ allegations.[5] The Supreme Court of Missouri held that the motion court must hold a post-conviction evidentiary hearing unless the record conclusively proves the defendant is not entitled to relief. Because of that and also because Roberts had “sufficiently pleaded facts that, if true, support his allegations,” the motion court had “clearly erred” by not holding an evidentiary hearing.[6]

II. Legal Background

The Supreme Court of Missouri began its analysis with Mo. R. Crim. Proc. § 24.035 (2000), quoting an earlier case for the proposition that "[a]n evidentiary hearing may only be denied when the record conclusively shows that the movant is not entitled to relief."[7] The defendant relied upon a piece of evidence supporting his motion for post-conviction relief prior to the plea hearing. Roberts had received a note from his counsel stating, "I got you an offer for fourteen years with no opposition to your receiving drug and alcohol treatment."[8] At the plea hearing, Roberts accepted plea stated that the prosecution would not oppose institutional treatment "if recommended."[9] Roberts argued this "if recommended" insertion rendered his plea involuntary and that his counsel should have objected to the unilateral addition of the qualification.[10]

The prosecutor argued Roberts received the deal he had been offered: the state would not oppose institutional treatment for him if such treatment was recommended at the sentencing hearing.[11] As Roberts was not recommended for institutional treatment at his sentencing, there was nothing for the prosecution to oppose.

The Court found that the trial court had erred in denying the evidentiary hearing because the record did not conclusively show Roberts was not entitled to relief. While the Court did not explicitly state what "record" should be consulted, its holding implies that the "record" consists only of the movant's plea: because Roberts had "sufficiently pleaded that his counsel's alleged failures impacted the voluntariness of his plea...this Court finds that the motion court clearly erred in denying [Roberts] an evidentiary hearing."[12] Moreover, the Court stated that if Roberts' plea had not taken place in a group plea hearing, the Court would have upheld the trial court's decision to not hold an evidentiary hearing: "[a]bsent a group plea setting, Movant would have little room to assert confusion about his plea."[13]

III. Commentary

The important points of this decision lay in the obiter dictum. In footnote five of the majority opinion, the Court alludes to the underlying rationale of its holding - it distrusts the group plea mechanism and its implications for due process.[14] The Court also arguably limited the meaning of the word "record" in Mo. R. Crim. Proc. § 24.035 to mean the movant's pleading, and not the broader meaning given in the dissenting opinion.[15]

- David R. Swaney

[1] No. 89245 (Mo. 2009) (en banc). The West reporter citation is Roberts v. State, 276 S.W.3d  833 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).
[2] Id. at *1. Defendant was charged with dual violations of Missouri law, each charge a class C felony. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 195.202 (2000).
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 3. Mo. R. Crim. Proc. § 24.035 governs when an evidentiary hearing must be held in a motion for post-conviction relief.
[7] Id. at 1, quoting Wilkes v. State, 82 S.W.3d 925, 928 (Mo. 2002) (emphasis in original).
[8] Id. at 1.
[9] Id. at 2.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. Roberts desired to participate in institutional treatment pursuant to statute, which provides an opportunity for drug treatment and probation. See Id. at n 4.
[12] Id. at 3.
[13] Id.
[14] See Id. at n5. The Court cites to cases where the practice has been criticized in Missouri appellate courts and other jurisdictions, largely on due process principles.
[15] See Id., at 3–12. In his dissenting opinion Judge Price argues that the record, which includes more than the defendant's pleading, conclusively showed the movant was not entitled to relief).