Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-11-29316
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota for respondent.
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Michael W. Kunkel, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Cleary, Presiding Judge; Hooten, Judge; and Willis, Judge. [*]
Appellant challenges the district court's denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea to felony domestic assault and his subsequent conviction and gross misdemeanor sentence. Because the district court was excessively involved in plea negotiations and, as a result, appellant's plea is per se invalid, we reverse and remand.
Appellant Ron Wesley Epps was charged with two counts of felony domestic assault against his live-in domestic partner. According to the complaint, the victim told Minneapolis police officers, who responded to a call for assistance at the home, that he was assaulted by appellant who began punching him in the face when he refused to give appellant a ride to work. At the time of the incident, appellant had two previous convictions of domestic-abuse no-contact order (DANCO) violations and a conviction of fifth-degree assault.
A jury trial commenced after appellant did not accept the state's final offer to plead guilty to either count in return for a stay of imposition of sentence for three years and three years of probation. During trial, however, appellant pleaded guilty to one of the counts of felony domestic assault with the understanding that the district court would sentence him to a gross misdemeanor sentence. The district court accepted appellant's plea over the state's objection to sentencing the charge as a gross misdemeanor. During the waiver of his trial rights, appellant asked if "it's understandable that this is a gross misdemeanor, not a felony, right, I'm pleading to, right?" Appellant's counsel answered in the affirmative and proceeded to establish the felony-enhancement aspect of the charge. For purposes of clarification, the state inquired whether appellant understood that "the offense that [he was] pleading guilty to is currently a felony, but the Judge is going to sentence you to a gross misdemeanor." The attorneys and the judge then engaged in additional attempts to clarify that appellant would receive a gross misdemeanor sentence.
At the sentencing hearing before a different judge, the state disclosed that appellant had been subsequently charged with an additional felony for a DANCO violation and requested that sentencing be continued along with trial on the new charge. Appellant also claimed that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel and his plea had been entered under duress. The matter was then continued for a hearing before the judge who had presided over appellant's guilty plea. At this hearing, appellant again questioned the validity of his plea and the matter was again continued in order to obtain a transcript of the plea hearing. Appellant then moved to withdraw his guilty plea. The district court summarily denied appellant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea and sentenced him to 365 days in jail. This appeal follows.
Appellant argues that the district court excessively involved itself in the plea bargaining process by promising appellant a gross misdemeanor sentence in exchange for a felony guilty plea, and also that the district court erred by failing to consider appellant's pre-sentence motion for withdrawal of his guilty plea. The state agrees that the guilty plea is per se invalid pursuant to State v. Anyanwu, 681 N.W.2d 411, 415 (Minn.App. 2004) and Melde v. State, 778 N.W.2d 376, 379 (Minn.App. 2010). The validity of a guilty plea is a question of law subject to de novo review, and a defendant bears the burden of showing that his or her plea was invalid. State v. Raleigh, 778 N.W.2d 90, 94 (Minn. 2010).
We agree that appellant's guilty plea is per se invalid under the circumstances of this case. "The district court has a role to play in plea negotiations, but it may not 'usurp the responsibility of counsel or become excessively involved in plea negotiations and may not improperly inject itself into plea negotiations.'" Melde, 778 N.W.2d at 378 (quoting Anyanwu, 681 N.W.2d at 414). "When a district court injects itself into plea negotiations, it has removed itself from the role of an independent examiner of the plea negotiations and has stepped into the position of one of the parties to the negotiation by becoming excessively involved in the negotiations themselves." Anyanwu, 681 N.W.2d at 414–15 (quotations omitted). "Anytime a district court improperly injects itself into plea negotiations the guilty plea is per se invalid." Id. at 415. While appellant did not object to the district court's involvement in his ...