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Knowing and Voluntary Guilty Plea

People v Brown

2010 NY Slip Op 01376 [14 NY3d 113]

Decided: February 18, 2010

Issue : Whether the Defendant’s plea was coerced based on a promise by the trial court that he would be released after his plea to see his son in the hospital and ultimately whether the plea was knowing and voluntary.

Facts : Defendant contended that he entered the guilty plea "under conditions of duress" and "as a result of emotional and mental distress caused by his fear of his son’s death." He further claimed that he "never would have entered into a guilty plea if his son had not been shot and lapsed into a coma."

Held : The Court of Appeals held that the Trial Court abused its discretion when it denied the Defendant a hearing of the motion to determine if the plea was made voluntarily and should have held a hearing because there were enough facts in this case to call the voluntariness of the plea into issue. The case was remanded for a hearing before the trial court on this issue.

Defendant, under indictment for one count of robbery in the third degree and one count of grand larceny in the fourth degree, was unable to post the $10,000 bail and was held in custody

Defendant’s son was in the hospital and in a coma as a result of multiple gunshot wounds. At the outset of the next court appearance, the court informed defendant that a proposed plea bargain would require him to plead guilty to both counts of the indictment in exchange for a 2-to-4-year sentence, and then stated, "[y]our attorney told me [that] you were interested in taking the plea if I were to give you a furlough for three weeks to allow you to see your sick child," who was still in the hospital. Defendant responded in the affirmative, and the court agreed to the furlough, warning defendant that if he did not appear on the scheduled date, he would receive an increased sentence.

Defendant moved to withdraw his plea on the ground that it had not been entered into voluntarily. The motion detailed that, while he had been in custody prior to pleading guilty, defendant requested a visit to the hospital to see his child, but jail officials denied the request on the apparently mistaken belief that his son’s condition was not serious.

The Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s conviction, concluding "defendant’s allegations of duress and coercion are belied by the statements of defendant during the plea colloquy, wherein he knowingly and voluntarily admitted that he committed the crimes to which he was pleading guilty"

We have not previously considered the voluntariness of a plea conditioned on defendant being granted a brief release to see a seriously ill family member. We have, however, addressed a plea allegedly influenced by concerns for a close relative. In People v Fiumefreddo (82 NY2d 536 [1993]), defendant moved to withdraw her guilty plea, arguing that it had been coerced{**14 NY3d at 117} because it was connected to the prosecutor’s acceptance of a plea bargain favorable to her codefendant father, who was elderly and ill. Although stating that connected pleas presented a matter "requir[ing] special care," we rejected the defendant’s argument that her plea had been involuntary, noting that the plea had been subject to several months of negotiations; that the court engaged in a "lengthy and detailed colloquy"; and that she never denied her guilt

Unlike Fiumefreddo, there is no indication on the record that the specific terms of this plea were subject to extended discussion or that defendant had sufficient time to consider the alternatives to taking it. The court never inquired about the impact the promised furlough had on defendant’s decision to plead guilty or indeed whether defendant was pleading guilty voluntarily.

The court’s statement that defendant was "interested in taking the plea if I were to give [him] a furlough" suggests that the court itself was aware of the central influence the furlough had on defendant’s decision to plead guilty. On the motion to withdraw the plea, defendant provided detailed allegations explaining the duress that he experienced based on his fear that his son might not survive. Rather than considering these allegations, the court simply relied on the fact that defendant made "an adequate allocution to the two charges." But whether defendant admitted his guilt to the charged crimes does not inform the analysis of whether the plea was voluntary.

Finally, the denial of defendant’s previous request to be released from jail to see his son in the hospital lends support to his contention that this desire influenced his decision to plead guilty. Under these particular circumstances, we conclude that County Court abused its discretion in [*4]failing to conduct a hearing to explore defendant’s allegations in order to make an informed determination.

We adhere to the general rule that so long as the totality of the circumstances reveals that the plea is voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently made, it will be upheld. Indeed, no abuse of discretion will be found where the court, recognizing the potentially coercive nature of the plea terms, conducts a thorough inquiry to establish that defendant is pleading guilty willingly after considering other legitimate alternatives.

Moreover, where a careful scrutiny of the motion to withdraw reveals that defendant’s allegations fail to raise a legitimate question as to the voluntariness of the plea, the court may deny the motion without a hearing. Here, however, the circumstances raise a genuine factual issue as to the voluntariness of the plea that could only be resolved after a hearing.

Order reversed and case remitted to County Court, Monroe County.