When is a guilty plea the product of coercion?

Coerced Guilty Plea

State v. Smith (Nev. Supreme Ct. – Sep. 3, 2015)

Smith pleaded no contest to one count of child abuse resulting in substantial bodily harm. The State argued that the district court abused its discretion when it found that the actions of the Washoe County Department of Social Services (DSS) coerced Smith into pleading no contest. The issue is whether the district court abused its discretion in concluding that those actions amounted to coercion and that Smith’s no-contest plea was therefore involuntary.

Smith’s two-month-old daughter suffered a spiral fracture of her femur on November 30, 2010, purportedly while in Smith’s care. Smith always maintained his innocence of child abuse, but DSS concluded that Smith broke the leg in an act of child abuse and sought and obtained legal custody over the infant. Smith’s wife often had physical custody of their daughter, but at times DSS sought and/or obtained physical custody of the infant and placed her in foster care. As noted in the district court order partially granting Smith’s habeas petition, DSS indicated that it would consent to returning both physical and legal custody to Smith’s wife but that doing so was solely dependent upon Smith’s incarceration. After Smith was sentenced to prison in May 2012, DSS closed the case and returned legal and physical custody of the infant to Smith’s wife.

Smith filed a timely post-conviction petition for a writ of habeas corpus in which he argued that he should be allowed to withdraw his no-contest plea because it was coerced and thus not voluntary. Based on the facts above, the district court concluded that Smith was coerced into pleading no contest and issued an order partially granting the petition, directing the judgment of conviction and sentence be set aside, and concluding that he be allowed to withdraw his no-contest plea. The State appealed.

The State first argued that the district court ignored important facts regarding Smith’s behavior and compliance with DSS and regarding DSS’s intent to protect the child. The Nevada Supreme Court noted that the district court received the evidence to which the State refers, yet still came to the findings to which the State objects. The Court determined that the State pointed to nothing to suggest that the district court ignored the evidence and thus had not demonstrated that the decision constituted an abuse of discretion.

The State next argued that the plea was not coerced just because it was motivated by a desire to avoid a more serious consequence. The district court specifically found, however, that there was no evidence to support the theory that Smith entered the no-contest plea to avoid a greater charge or to get a lesser penalty. Rather, the district court found that Smith’s plea was motivated by the unique circumstances of DSS’s inflexible, unyielding, and uncompromising position in his family court case. Thus, the Court found that the district court’s findings were supported by the record, and accordingly, were not an abuse of discretion.

The State finally argued that nothing about DSS’s actions were unconstitutional and implied that constitutional, lawful actions of an agency cannot amount to coercion. In support, the State cited only to Iaea v. Sunn, 800 F.2d 861 (9th Cir. 1986). The Court noted that case tended to support the opposite conclusion. The defendant in Iaea argued that his guilty plea was coerced by a threat from his brother to withdraw bail and a threat from his counsel to withdraw from the case if he took it to trial. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit observed that voluntariness is determined based on an examination of the totality of the circumstances and, therefore, when a guilty plea is challenged as being the product of coercion, the court’s concern is not solely with the subjective state of mind of the defendant, but also with the constitutional acceptability of the external forces inducing the guilty plea. The Court believed that the reference to the “constitutional acceptability of the external forces inducing the guilty plea” did not relate to the constitutionality of the external forces in isolation but instead related to whether the external forces, such as promises or threats, deprived the plea of the nature of a voluntary act, making the plea involuntary. The Court explained that this is reflected in the Ninth Circuit’s decision to remand in laea for the federal district court to determine whether the threats were made and, if so, to consider their coercive impact on the voluntariness of the plea, without finding that either challenged action was unconstitutional. laea thus suggests that actions that may be lawful and constitutional can nevertheless be unduly coercive and thereby render a plea involuntary. Therefore, the Court found that the State failed to demonstrate that the district court abused its discretion in partially granting the petition.

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