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Missouri Supreme Court: IAC Where Guilty Plea Based on Counsel’s Assurance Defendant Eligible for Drug Treatment Program When, as Matter of Law, Ineligible

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that a defendant’s guilty plea was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel due to counsel misinforming the defendant that he qualified for the long-term drug program (“LTDP”) under RSMO § 217.362 that he was, as a matter of law, disqualified from entering. The Court reversed the judgment in the case.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Dustin J. Hefley. After his attorney advised him that he would be eligible for the LTDP in prison but also advised that his placement was not guaranteed, Hefley decided to enter a guilty plea, without a plea agreement, to driving while intoxicated. After accepting the plea, a sentencing date was set, and a sentencing assessment report (“SAR”) was ordered. The SAR noted Hefley needed approval from the parole board before he could enter the LTDP, but it determined that he was “eligible for sentencing pursuant to RMSO 217.362 Long Term treatment.”

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor stated she did not have any additions or corrections to the SAR. Plea counsel stated Hefley “would like to get into a long-term treatment program.”
The sentencing court imposed a nine-year sentence and added, “I’m going to sentence you under the 217 program of long-term treatment. It will be up to the parole board whether they allow you to do that or not.”

The Board of Probation and Parole, following sentencing, informed the sentencing court that Hefley was ineligible for the LTDP.

Hefley filed a Rule 24.035 motion for postconviction relief, arguing that he was provided with ineffective counsel due to the fact counsel misinformed him that he could be placed in the LTDP when in fact, as a matter of law, he was ineligible as a habitual offender. After he filed his motion, the court held a hearing at which Hefley testified he would have “[a]bsolutely not” pleaded guilty in an open plea if he knew he would not have been eligible for the LTDP. He acknowledged that he knew he could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and that his acceptance into the LTDP was not guaranteed.

The motion court denied relief, finding counsel was not ineffective because Hefley recognized he was not assured placement in the program and, by entering an open plea, he subjected himself to the full range of punishment for the offense. He appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled that the denial of Hefley’s motion for postconviction relief was in error.

The Court began its analysis by noting that eligibility for the LTDP is to be determined prior to sentencing, not afterwards as what occurred in the present case. § 217.362.2; State ex rel. Tayloer v. Moore, 136 S.W.3d (Mo. banc 2004) (“The trial court erred in sentencing [the defendant] to LTDP without verifying his eligibility for the program.”). The Court admonished that “It is error for a court to sentence a defendant to the LTDP prior to ensuring eligibility and space through the DOC.”

Turning to the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Court observed that the standard for making that determination is the two-part test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The first prong requires the defendant to show that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. The second prong requires the defendant to show prejudice, i.e., “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id.

Quoting State v. Roll, 942 S.W.2d 370 (Mo. banc 1997), the Court noted that “a guilty plea must be a voluntary expression of the defendant’s choice, and a knowing and intelligent act done with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.” The Court further noted that counsel’s “mistaken beliefs about sentencing affects a defendant’s ability to knowingly enter a guilty plea….” Dorsey v. State, 115 S.W.3d 842 (Mo. banc 2003).

The Court stated that the sentencing record clearly shows that plea counsel referenced the LTDP several times, and testimony from the postconviction relief hearing contains evidence that Hefley reasonably relied on counsel’s erroneous advice in deciding to plead guilty. The Court determined that counsel’s erroneous advice “was objectively unreasonable,” and thus, the lower court’s judgment that “Hefley’s plea was made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently is clearly erroneous.”

As to prejudice, the Court explained that plea counsel’s “erroneous assurance Hefley was eligible for the program, which motivated his plea from the outset, was ultimately followed by the circuit court.” Based on the record, the Court concluded that but for counsel’s error, “Hefley would not have entered the guilty plea and would have insisted on proceeding to trial.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment denying Hefley’s Rule 24.035 motion and remanded for further proceedings. See: Hefley v. State, 626 S.W.3d 244 (Mo. 2021). 

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