ANALYSIS OF MAY 2, 2019 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted May 2, 2019) After a one-week hiatus, the justices today resume the process of clearing their desks by handing down one published opinion. In Brown v. Commonwealth, they address a motion to withdraw a guilty plea.
A loss-prevention officer at a department store observed Brown concealing merchandise. Recognizing her as a person who had been barred from the store for previous larcenies, he confronted her. Today’s opinion describes succinctly what happened next: “she asked if he was going to press charges. She then left the items behind, ran to a vehicle, and fled.”
Uh-oh. This looks bad, especially since this would be a third larceny offense, and that means a felony charge. When Brown got to court, it looked bad enough that she agreed to a plea deal, reducing the larceny charge to second offense. The deal called for a 12-month jail sentence, with only one month to serve. The judge thought that sounded okay, and announced judgment accordingly.
Bad news soon arrived for Brown, as she realized that she could lose her home and her job – presumably by being locked up and not at her place of employment for 30 days – by taking the deal. Her lawyer filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea two days after trial. The court hadn’t entered the sentencing order yet, but it denied the motion and sentenced Brown according to the agreement.
Brown got nowhere in the Court of Appeals, but the justices agreed to take a look. Today the Supreme Court unanimously affirms. The opinion provides a useful primer on the standards that apply to motions to withdraw such pleas.
There are two different sets of criteria for these motions. The first is where the defendant makes the motion before judgment. There, the defendant gets a more forgiving playing field: “a motion to withdraw should be granted if the guilty plea was ‘made involuntarily’ or ‘entered inadvisedly, if any reasonable ground is offered for going to the jury.’” To meet that standard, the defendant has to show only that his motion is in good faith and there’s a reasonable basis for it.
After judgment, it’s much tougher sledding for a movant. By statute, he has to show manifest injustice, and that requires proof of “an obvious miscarriage of justice” or a direct and obvious error.
The Supreme Court’s first task is deciding which set of rules applies after rendition (oral announcement) of judgment but before entry (signing an order) of judgment. The court concludes that the more logical approach is to apply the tougher manifest-injustice standard as soon as the court announces its decision.
This starts us down an inexorable road to ruin for Brown. The justices first note that her proffered defense to the charge – the fact that the merchandise never left the store – is legally insufficient as a defense to a larceny charge. One can commit larceny from a store just by concealing merchandise with an intent to steal, even without getting outside. Second, her claim that collateral consequences (loss of job and home) fails to establish a miscarriage of justice. The court surveys rulings from other states before reaching this conclusion:
In accord with these decisions, we conclude that actual or potential adverse employment or housing consequences that flow from Brown’s guilty plea do not satisfy the manifest injustice standard and, therefore, did not provide a basis upon which to set aside her guilty plea.