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Minnesota Supreme Court Clarifies Rule Against Judicial ‘Participation’ in Plea Negotiations

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Minnesota clarified the rule barring judicial “participation” in plea negotiations, overturning decades of decisions by the court of appeals, which had applied the wrong rule of law in such cases.

When Jetaun Wheeler was accused of murder, the State offered a plea to the charge of second-degree intentional murder, and defense counsel sought a plea to manslaughter. When negotiations stalled, the State threatened to put Wheeler’s children on the stand to testify against their mother.

This caused the district court to get involved. “It is a pretty serious situation to have children of the defendant having to come and testify against their own mother,” the court said at the hearing on whether the children should testify. “I would like to see some attempts made at trying to resolve this.”

The State followed up with an email to the court and Wheeler that it would offer second-degree unintentional murder with 20 years in prison. The court responded that “the defendant’s offer to enter into a straight plea to manslaughter ... isn’t something this court is willing to do.” It further stated that “a plea to unintentional 2nd degree murder with a prison term the parties can agree in (something in the range of x months and 240 months) appears to be more realistic.” After the trial had started, Wheeler accepted the State’s plea offer to protect her kids from having to testify. She was sentenced to 172 months in prison.

In her petition for postconviction relief, Wheeler asserted that the district court improperly participated in the plea negotiations and requested to withdraw her plea. Defense counsel submitted an affidavit that Wheeler would not have pleaded but for the court’s participation. The district court, admitting it was “unambiguously involved” in the plea negotiations, determined its “sparse remarks” were a “far cry” from pressuring Wheeler into pleading and denied her petition without a hearing. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the district court did not “excessively involve itself” in the negotiations.

The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear Wheeler’s appeal in order to clarify its position on the “principle that a district court judge should not participate in the plea bargaining negotiation itself.”

Fifty years ago, in State v. Johnson, 156 N.W.2d 218 (Minn. 1968), the Minnesota Supreme Court instructed that a court should not “participate” in plea negotiations. The question before the Court in Wheeler’s case was what it means for a court to “participate” in plea negotiations and what to do about it when it does.

The court’s role in plea negotiations is to be an “independent examiner” of the plea’s validity, the Johnson Court explained. The court must not participate in plea negotiations until a plea is submitted to the court; it must ensure that its participation is limited to a “discreet inquiry into the propriety” of the plea.

Minnesota Rule of Criminal Procedure 15.04 specifically requires that a court’s participation is to either “reject or accept the plea of guilty on the terms in the plea agreement.” But Rule 15 makes no mention of a court’s involvement before the plea. The judge-made rule in Johnson controls that.

The court of appeals, however, has over the years interpreted Johnson to mean a court cannot become “excessively involved” in plea negotiations, adding that some judicial involvement is “inevitable” and acceptable. The Court observed that the court of appeals has basically read Johnson to mean only “direct involvement” in negotiations, imposing a plea agreement by the court, or the court promising a particular sentence before a plea is prohibited.

The Court rejected that interpretation of Johnson and overruled those court of appeals decisions that are inconsistent with the Court’s interpretation of participation announced in this opinion. The Court reaffirmed the principle first articulated in Johnson “that a district court judge should not participate in plea bargaining negotiation itself,” clarifying that a “judge’s function is limited to approving or rejecting a plea” submitted for consideration.

In providing further guidance, the Court instructed that a “judge does not violate this bright-line rule, however, by inquiring into the status of negotiations, sharing general sentencing practices, or disclosing nonbinding plea and sentencing information at the joint request of the parties.”

The Johnson rule promotes “judicial impartiality throughout the plea bargaining phase,” the Court explained. It also preserves the separation of powers and ensures the prosecution is not pressured to offer a plea, which it is not required to do. It also ensures that the defendant is not improperly induced into pleading guilty.

Turning to the present case, the Court determined that the judge’s actions in Wheeler’s negotiations “tipped the scales in favor of the State and took away some of Wheeler’s bargaining power,” the Court said. The judge’s actions constituted prohibited “participation.” While parties can jointly ask a court to participate in negotiations, that did not happen here. The Court ruled that the district court “participated in the plea bargaining negotiations itself by providing unsolicited comments regarding the parties’ competing settlement offers and proposing a plea deal of its own.”

The Court then addressed the issue of the appropriate remedy. It noted that the court of appeals has adopted a rule of per se invalidity whenever a district court improperly participates in plea negotiations. The Court refused to adopt such a blanket rule. Instead, it instructed that plea withdrawal is appropriate only “when a manifest injustice occurs.” A court’s participation results in manifest injustice when it “makes the defendant’s plea involuntary,” which “depends on the nature and extent of the judge’s conduct….” Thus, the Court held that a Johnson violation triggers a “standard totality-of-the-circumstances inquiry into the voluntariness of the plea.”

Whether a plea is voluntary is a question of fact, but the postconviction court didn’t make any findings of fact on the issue. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals and remanded to the district court so that Wheeler can amend her petition in accordance with the rule of law announced in this opinion.

See: Wheeler v. State, 909 N.W.2d 558 (Minn. 2018). 

 

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