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Trial court is free to make suggestions and lecture defendant during plea baragaining

State v. Lavonte M. Price, 2014AP1189-CR, District 1, 2/13/15 (not recommended for publication); click here for briefs

This decision examines the line between a trial court’s active participation in the plea negotiation process, which Wisconsin law prohibits, and trial court’s comments, suggestions and lectures, which are permitted under Wisconsin law.  What the trial court did here was just fine, said the court of appeals.

Price claimed that his guilty pleas were involuntary because the trial court impermissibly participated in his plea negotiations. Without delving too far into the nitty-gritty, he noted that the trial court: (1) suggested that the parties work out a “different kind of agreement” after he had refused to admit that he threatened to use force in robbing the victim; (2) questioned the parties about why they could not resurrect an earlier plea agreement; and (3) lectured him about the importance of making a decision, thereby pressuring him to accept the State’s revised offer.

A defendant who has entered a plea following a judge’s “active participation” in the plea negotiation is entitled to withdraw it. See State v. Williams, 2003 WI App 116, ¶16, 265 Wis. 2d 229, 666 N.W.2d 58.  This rule does not bar a judge from commenting on the strengths of the State’s case or the advisability of the defendant opting to avoid a trial. State v. Hunter, 2005 WI App 5, ¶8, 278 Wis. 2d 419, 692 N.W.2d 256.  However, a judge may not suggest or advocate for a particular plea agreement. Id. ¶11.

Applying these rules, the court of appeals rejected all of Price’s arguments. First, suggesting that the parties work out a different agreement did not amount to active participation in the plea bargain process. Rather it proposed a slight modification after the parties had already worked out a deal. Slip op. ¶23. Anyway, here the trial court stressed that the parties could reject its suggestion. Second, asking the parties why they couldn’t resurrect a prior agreement simply showed that the trial court wanted to understand why circumstances had changed. Slip op. ¶27. Third, lecturing Price on the importance of making a decision showed only that “the court wanted Price to make a decision, not a particular decision.” Slip op. ¶29. (Emphasis in original).

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