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Defendant’s lack of understanding deemed manifest injustice

The Court of Appeals convenes at the Minnesota Judicial Center, which stands across Cedar Street from the state Capitol in St. Paul.

By Barbara L. Jones
BridgeTower Media Newswires

A defendant may withdraw his guilty plea where he did not understand that he was waiving his right to appeal evidentiary issues by pleading guilty, the Court of Appeals in Minnesota has determined.

The court in State v. Moran, a nonprecedential decision, said that plea withdrawal is required to correct a manifest injustice because it was not intelligently entered.

“Both counsel and the district court suggested that Moran could challenge his suppression issue on appeal, and there is no indication in the record that Moran was ever informed otherwise,” wrote Judge Denise Reilly for the unanimous court.

The defendant was pulled over when a state trooper witnessed several driving errors and believed the driver was under the influence of a controlled substance. There were bags containing needles and white residue in the vehicle. The officer obtained a search warrant to draw a blood sample, which revealed the presence of amphetamine and methamphetamine.

Moran was charged with two counts of felony driving while intoxicated, one count of gross misdemeanor driving after cancellation and one count of misdemeanor fleeing police.

Moran moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer unlawfully stopped and seized him and that the blood test result was the fruit of an unlawful search and an expired blood test kit.

The Becker County District Court held a contested omnibus hearing and denied the motion to suppress. The judge determined that the officer’s report had a typo in the kit expiration date and that the kit had not expired.

Moran then pleaded guilty to one count of felony impaired driving and the other counts were dismissed. Prior to sentencing he moved to withdraw his guilty plea, again asserting that the test kit was expired. The court denied the motion and sentenced him to 65 months in prison.

The court proceeded on the record after the state did not file a brief.

Manifest injustice

Plea withdrawal is  permitted under Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.05, subd. 1, if necessary to correct a manifest injustice, or under subd. 2 if it is fair and just to do so. The Court of Appeals applied the stricter manifest injustice standard.

A manifest injustice exists if a guilty plea is not valid, and a plea is not valid unless it is accurate, voluntary and intelligent, the court wrote. The burden of proof that the plea was not valid is on the defendant.

The defendant argued that his plea was unintelligent because he did not understand its direct consequences, including giving up his rights to appeal the suppression order. The court agreed.

“[C]ounsel did not advise Moran that by pleading guilty he was waiving his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his suppression motion,” the court said. It pointed to a colloquy between defense counsel and the court where the court asked if the suppression issue could be raised on appeal if the court ruled on the motion to withdraw the plea. Counsel responded that it would be an appellate issue.

“In its order denying Moran’s motion to withdraw his plea, the district court noted that it had heard Moran’s arguments during the omnibus hearing and did not find that suppression was warranted. The district court found that ‘Because the Court has already heard [Moran’s] arguments and ruled on the matter, this issue is a matter for the Court of Appeals,’” the court said.

The record thus demonstrated that the defendant failed to comprehend the nature, purposes and contents of his plea. It was therefore unintelligent, and withdrawal was necessary to correct a manifest injustice, the court held.

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