Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 6, 2013


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State Supreme Court Rules Counsel May Stipulate to Factual Basis for Guilty Pleas


By JUSTIN LEVINE, Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court has ruled that Penal Code § 1192.5’s factual inquiry requirement for a defendant’s pleas of guilty or nolo contendere can be satisfied by a counsel’s stipulation to a factual basis for the plea, without needing to reference any specific document in order to establish it.

The case involved defendant David Edward Palmer, who was charged with two felony counts for possessing ecstasy and marijuana for sale.

In a deal with prosecutors, Palmer agreed to plead no contest to the ecstasy charge in exchange for a granting of probation and dismissal of the marijuana charge. He also gave up his rights to a preliminary hearing and a probation report.

In accordance with the trial court’s inquiry obligations under § 1192.5 to determine that there was a factual basis for his plea, Palmer stated in court that that he had discussed the elements of the charges and defenses with his counsel and that he was satisfied with her advice. He also indicated that he was knowingly and voluntarily entering his plea.

The prosecutor then asked Palmer’s defense counsel, “Do you stipulate, [counsel], there‘s a factual basis for [the] plea as the People do?”

Without referencing any document, the defense counsel replied, “Yes, I do stipulate.”

The exchange prompted the trial court to accept Palmer’s plea. It then sentenced him to three years’ probation on the condition he also serve nine months in county jail.

After obtaining a certificate of probable cause in accordance with Penal Code § 1237.5(b), Palmer appealed, arguing that his counsel’s stipulation was inadequate to establish a factual basis for his plea as required by § 1192.5.

The Court of Appeal affirmed Palmer’s conviction, holding that since his counsel’s stipulation to a factual basis for his plea was made in his presence and with his apparent assent, it should be regarded as an admission by him.

The appellate court said that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in accepting the pleas and that Palmer’s argument was not cognizable on appeal because it essentially challenged the conclusion that there was a factual basis for the plea, rather than the court’s process.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeal on the issue of appealability, but agreed that Palmer was bound by his plea and upheld the conviction and sentence.

Since the stipulation didn’t refer to any particular documents or facts, the court held, Palmer’s challenge concerned the trial court’s procedure in obtaining the facts, not its discretionary evaluation of them. He was therefore still allowed to appeal on the issue, notwithstanding the fact that his defense counsel stipulated that a factual basis for his plea existed.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kathryn Werdegar said that Palmer hadn’t waived the issue through his initial stipulation, nor was he estopped from arguing it since he was seeking “to remedy a defect in the plea procedure” rather than “seeking to gain an advantage by reneging on a promise relating to the plea bargain.”

Turning to the issue of the adequacy of Palmer’s plea, Werdegar said that even though referencing particular documents was “desirable,” the court’s statutory duties under § 1192.5 will still be satisfied based on a bare stipulation from counsel when “the plea colloquy reveals that the defendant has discussed the elements of the crime and any defenses with his or her counsel and is satisfied with counsel’s advice.”

She said that the holding was consistent with a defense counsel’s broad authority to stipulate to evidence and procedural matters on behalf of clients.

“Even at trial, counsel may stipulate to the existence or nonexistence of essential facts,” Werdegar wrote “…Stipulations obviate the need for proof and are independently sufficient to resolve the matter at issue in the stipulation.”

Werdegar also said that there were also practical reasons for following such a rule, such as the possibility that a defendant may be factually guilty but still hesitate to stipulate to the allegations contained in a specific document like a police report, or the possibility that a defendant may wish to avoid having confidential information becoming part of the case as a condition for a plea.

She also voiced concerns that an opposite ruling could adversely impact the function of defense counselors because they may advise clients to accept plea agreements based on their confidential admissions or defense investigatory efforts that results in privileged information.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote a sole concurring and dissenting opinion.

She agreed that Palmer’s appeal was not procedurally barred, but disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a trial court could, in her words, “simply rely on a defense counsel’s assurance of a factual basis for [a] plea, even though counsel mentions no facts or documentary source from which a factual basis can be ascertained.”

Kennard worried that the majority’s holding would endanger that rationale for § 1192.5, making sure that a defendant’s plea was made freely and voluntarily.

She wrote:

“As the American Bar Association (ABA) observed nearly 50 years ago, the factual basis inquiry advances certain purposes: ‘First and foremost, inquiry ensures that the defendant actually committed a crime at least as serious as the one to which he is willing to plead. Secondly, investigation into the factual basis of guilty pleas acts to increase the visibility of charge reduction practices, a common form of plea agreement. In addition, these inquiries provide a more adequate record of the conviction process; this record minimizes the chances of a defendant successfully challenging his conviction later…and also aids correctional agencies in the performance of their functions. Finally, increased knowledge about the circumstances of the defendant’s offense provides the court with a better assessment of defendant’s competency, his willingness to plead guilty, and his understanding of the charges against him.’ ”

     Kennard concluded that stipulating to a factual basis for a guilty or no-contest plea, without revealing any specific facts regarding the circumstances of the alleged offenses, “operates essentially as a waiver of the factual basis requirement.”

She said that she would have reversed the judgment and remanded the case back to the trial court in order to decide if a factual basis for Palmer’s plea existed.

The case is People v. Palmer; 13 S.O.S. 6155.


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