Warnken, LLC Attorneys at Law, Attorneys & Lawyers, Pikesville, MD

State v. Daughtrey – Plea Agreements – Voluntariness

State v. Daughtrey, 419 Md. 35 (2011). 

            Plea Agreements – Voluntariness

Defendant pled guilty to murder, robbery, robbery with a deadly weapon, and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence, receiving a sentence of life, suspend all but 30 years, in exchange for his testimony against Co-Defendant.  At the plea hearing, the court engaged in a “bare bones” colloquy with Defendant, asking Defendant his age and level of education.  The court also inquired if Defendant could read, and asked whether Defendant had discussed the plea with his attorney.  Later, Defendant refused to testify against Co-Defendant, and the court sentenced Defendant to life, plus 20 years.  Defendant filed an application for leave to appeal his guilty plea, arguing that the court had failed to inform him of the elements of first degree murder as required by Md. Rule 4-242.  The CSA granted the application and reversed Defendant’s sentence on the grounds that the court’s plea colloquy was defective.  The State appealed, and the COA granted cert.

The COA considered the Defendant’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Bradshaw v. Stumpf, 545 U.S. 175 (2005), had altered the rule that a defense attorney’s discussions with a client does may create a presumption that the Defendant understands a plea deal.  The COA noted that the Supreme Court, in Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976), established the rule that a plea is not voluntary when a Defendant is not made aware of all of the elements of an offense.  Maryland thereafter established rule 4-242, which requires that the attorneys examine Defendant to determine 1) that the plea is voluntary, and 2) that there is a factual basis for the plea.  Defendant must also be made aware of collateral consequences of the plea.  The Supreme Court stated in Henderson that “it may be appropriate to presume that in most cases defense counsel routinely explain[s] the nature of the offense in sufficient detail to give the accused notice of what he is being asked to admit.”  The State argued that this language created a presumption that defense counsel sufficiently explained the nature of the offense and the terms of the plea.  The COA held that the language was dicta because it was not necessary for the resolution of the case.  The State cited other cases in Maryland where the court appeared to apply a presumption that defense counsel’s discussions with Defendant could serve as the basis for a presumption that the Defendant understood the plea.  The COA found that those cases were not authoritative on the subject.

The Defendant argued that the presumption language was conspicuously absent from the Supreme Court’s decision in Bradshaw, and that therefore the Supreme Court no longer recognized the presumption.  The COA held that “[w]e are convinced that the Supreme Court’s decision in Bradshaw did not affect the limited viability of the presumption as set forth originally in dicta in Henderson.”  The COA held that, in Maryland, whether a Defendant sufficiently understood a plea is based on analysis of the totality of the circumstances, and held that the fact that a Defendant had discussed the plea with his attorney, by itself, is insufficient to show that the Defendant understood the plea and made it voluntarily.  The Court relied on Rule 4-242(c), which states that the voluntariness examination of the Defendant must be conducted in open court.

The COA also explained some factors that are important in the totality of the circumstances analysis: (1) the nature of the crime (is the essence of the crime understandable based just on its name?), (2) characteristics of Defendant (does Defendant have diminished mental capacity?), and (3) whether the explanation of the factual basis for the plea sheds light on Defendant’s understanding of the plea.  The COA also determined that it is irrelevant whether (1) the Defendant indicates that he understands the plea, (2) the Defendant’s attorney represents that Defendant understands the plea, or (3) the court itself explains the plea to Defendant.

The COA also held that the ruling of this case applied retrospectively because it did not announce a new principle of law.  The Court noted that a new principle of law is not created based on the fact that some practitioners and courts had previously misapplied the rule.