Faribault County District Court File No. 22-CR-11-125
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Troy Timmerman, Faribault County Attorney, Lamar Piper, Assistant County Attorney, Blue Earth, Minnesota (for respondent)
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, F. Richard Gallo, Jr., Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Stoneburner, Judge; and Schellhas, Judge.
Appellant challenges his Alford plea to misdemeanor assault, arguing that the plea was not accurately made because the record fails to establish that the district court, on independent review, verified a strong factual basis for the plea and the defendant's agreement that the likely evidence would be sufficient to convict. Because the district court failed to sufficiently articulate its review of the factual basis for appellant's plea, and appellant's statements were inadequate to support the plea, we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The state charged appellant Daniel Hodge with one count of felony domestic assault, one count of second-degree assault, and one count of gross-misdemeanor domestic assault, as a result of a 2011 incident at appellant's residence in Wells in Faribault County. The state alleged that when a police officer responded to a domestic call, appellant's wife, S.H., told the officer that, during an argument, appellant had grabbed her by the hair, brought a knife to her throat, and threatened to kill her.
The matter was initially scheduled for jury trial in November 2011, but was continued twice at the state's request. At a rescheduled hearing, the state offered to permit a plea to a misdemeanor-level offense. Appellant indicated displeasure with his attorney and the prosecution's handling of the case. He also asked the district court judge to recuse, based on past contact with the judge. The district court told appellant that he could discharge his attorney and represent himself, but no other public defender would be appointed, and he would treat appellant's concern as a motion to remove him for cause. Another judge issued an order denying the pro se motion to remove.
Appellant then sent an e-mail to the judge seeking to exclude certain evidence and alleging that Faribault police were harassing him and engaging in misconduct. Later the same day, he appeared at a hearing with his attorney, who informed the district court that appellant was willing to enter an Alford plea to a charge of misdemeanor assault-fear in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.224, subd. 1(1) (2010), with no executed jail time, fine, or probation.
On the record, the prosecutor asked appellant whether he was entering the plea based on his belief that the state's evidence would be sufficient to convict him if a trial were held. Appellant replied, "Well, that's some of the things I don't agree with, but yes." The district court also asked appellant whether he understood that the state would introduce certain evidence at trial; appellant stated that he understood that the responding officer would "test-i-lie, or whatever you call it." Appellant agreed that, if the jury believed that testimony, the state's evidence would be sufficient to convict him.
The prosecutor questioned appellant:
PROSECUTOR: [D]o you understand that if the case progressed to trial the state would call witnesses . . . and that they could testify that on February 25, 2011 within the city limits of Wells you committed an act that caused [S.H.] to be fearful that you could inflict bodily harm upon her, specifically they might testify that you and [S.H.] were having an argument ...