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Plea Agreements — Judicial Participation

State v. Antoine T. Hunter, 2005 WI App 5
For Hunter: James R. Lucius

Issue: Whether the trial court’s observation to defendant, following denial of an assertedly “dispositive” suppression motion, that acquittal was “unlikely,” but that “coming forward and admitting your guilt” would provide “the opportunity to get some credit,” amounted to judicial participation in plea bargaining as banned by State v. Corey D. Williams, 2003 WI App 116.

Holding:

¶8. Hunter would have us interpret our statement in Williams that “ any form of judicial participation in plea negotiations,” id., ¶1 (emphasis added), mandates the automatic withdrawal upon request of a plea tendered after a judge has made comments like those quoted above. We decline to expand the Williams rule to encompass all comments a judge might make regarding the strength of the State’s case or the advisability of a defendant giving consideration to a disposition short of trial. To do so would undermine the effectiveness of the rule because the line whose crossing triggers a conclusive presumption that a plea was involuntary would be far less bright. Trial court judges would not know when the line had been crossed or how to avoid crossing it short of avoiding any discussion with a defendant whatsoever regarding the likely future course of the criminal proceedings.¶9. In order to discharge a trial court’s case-management responsibilities and prevent the needless clogging of trial calendars with cases that will almost certainly not be tried, a trial court needs to know as early as reasonably possible whether a case appears headed for trial or a plea. The court must therefore be free to inquire of the parties whether they have discussed a resolution or intend to do so, without fear that their comments or inquiries will later be deemed to have constituted “judicial participation in plea negotiations.” We share the dissent’s concern regarding the inappropriateness of the trial court’s comments in this case. (See ¶13.) We conclude, however, that the Williams rule does not require automatic plea withdrawal whenever a court expresses its view of the strength of the State’s case or advises a defendant to consider the advisability of pursuing a disposition short of trial. Instead, when a court’s comments to a defendant are arguably coercive of a plea, it remains the defendant’s burden to show that the plea that followed was involuntary.

The court seems to limit Williams “to direct judicial participation ‘in the plea bargaining process itself,” ¶12; in Hunter’s instance, “there is no suggestion … that the trial court was party or even privy to plea negotiations,” ¶11 – hence, no conclusive presumption of judicial coercion in this case, unlike Williams’. The court does, however, strongly caution against “(c)omments on the strength of a party’s case, or suggestions that a defendant should strongly consider entering a plea,” ¶13. For fact-specific reasons, turning largely on a 6-month lag between comments and plea, and on the thoroughness of the plea colloquy itself, the court finds that the plea was indeed voluntary, ¶¶17-19. The dissent, it should be noted, says that the majority essentially eviscerates Williams (“What the majority has really done is to overrule Williams in all but the case that reoccurs but once in ten years,” ¶30). The constant tension between rules and standards, writ small. If judges know that a bright-line, enforceable rule lurks behind every attempt to insinuate themselves into the defendant’s decisional process then they will necessarily be deterred from making the attempt. But if only a squishy, case-by-standard is at play, then the temptation to push the envelope will prove irresistible. That, at least, is one way to view this dynamic: beneath most judicial robes beats the heart of a test pilot. We’ll see.

 

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