State v. Garcia (HSC June 15, 2015)
Background. Eddie Garcia was charged with one count of continuous sexual assault of a minor under the age of fourteen years, a Class A felony, and one count of abuse of family household member. He pleaded not guilty and prepared for trial. After the pre-trial voluntariness hearing, Mr. Garcia reached a plea agreement with the prosecution. Mr. Garcia agreed to plead no contest to both counts and agree to 20 years prison concurrent (he wouldn’t have to do 21 years). The prosecution agreed to “remain silent at the minimum term hearing” in front of the Hawaii Paroling Authority.
Before sentencing, Garcia’s family and friends submitted to the pre-sentence investigator letters of support of him. His daughter also wrote a letter asking the Court to lessen his sentence because her mother was struggling without him. The prosecution also submitted a letter and three exhibits. The letter pointed out “some aggravating factors” even though it simultaneously recognized that Garcia’s sentence had already been determined pursuant to the plea agreement. The letter drew attention to the facts underlying the case and the attached exhibits included evidence that was never part of the PSI report, including a transcribed confession by Garcia to the police. The letter drew conclusions from the material by arguing that Garcia has tried to avoid taking responsibility for “his aberrant and sexually predator actions.” The letter also called him a “master manipulator.” Finally, the letter summed up that there should be no factors in favor of withholding imprisonment.
Garcia moved to withdraw his no-contest plea on the grounds that the prosecutor breached her agreement. At the hearing on the motion, the family court, concluded that the prosecutor did not breach the agreement because the PSI had not yet gone to the HPA. The family court—over Garcia’s objection (he wanted to withdraw the plea entirely)—denied the motion, but ordered the old PSI stricken and ordered a new PSI. This time the new PSI did not contain the prosecutor’s letter and attachments. At sentencing the family court sentenced him to 20 years. Garcia appealed and the ICA affirmed. Garcia applied for a writ of cert.
The Two Standards in Evaluating a Motion to Withdraw a Plea. How the court evaluates the withdrawal of a no-contest or guilty plea depends on when the request was made.
Where the request is made after sentence has been imposed, the “manifest injustice” standard is to be applied. But where the motion is presented to the trial court before the imposition of the sentence, a more liberal approach is to be taken, and the motion should be granted if the defendant has presented a fair and just reason for his request and the State has not relied upon the guilty plea to its substantial prejudice.
State v. Jim, 58 Haw. 574, 576, 574 P.2d 521, 522-23 (1978). See also Hawaii Rules of Penal Procedure Rule 32(d). Here, Garcia moved to withdraw the plea before sentencing. That means, according to the HSC, that the issue was whether the prosecutor’s conduct was a fair and just reason for requesting the plea and whether the prosecution relied on the plea to its substantial prejudice.
Submitting a Letter Bound to the HPA was a “Fair and Just” Reason to Get out of the No-Contest Plea. “It is well settled that the terms of a plea agreement, which serve as the inducement for entering a plea, must be fulfilled.” State v. Adams, 76 Haw. 408, 414, 879 P.2d 513, 519 (1994). When the parties enter a plea agreement, “the liberty of the defendant, . . . the honor of the government, public confident in the fair administration of justice, and the efficient administration of justice” are all at stake. People v. Sanders, 191 Cal. App. 3d 79, 87 (Cal. Ct. App. 1987).
According to the HSC, the prosecutor’s sending of the letter and exhibits was “inconsistent” with the prosecution’s promise to “remain silent at the minimum term hearing” before the HPA. Even though the prosecutor knew that Garcia would be sentenced to twenty years and even though the letter would eventually be received by the HPA, the prosecutor submitted it. The letter was more than a factual rehashing of the offense, it also “drew conclusions from this factual information and presented argument attacking Garcia’s character.”
The Family Court’s Intervention Could not Save the No-Contest Plea. The HSC expressly noted that the family court’s effort to prevent the HPA from reaching the letter was not enough. “Although the family court’s intervention protected Garcia from being prejudiced at the HPA, it could not undo the impact on Garcia’s perception of the integrity of the system and the trustworthiness of the government and his own counsel.”
The HSC appeared to be deeply concerned about the loss of confidence and trust that accompanies a breached plea agreement. The HSC noted that “if the integrity of plea agreements is not enforced, defendants may lose trust and confidence in the defense counsel who recommended the plea agreement. This outcome would directly undercut the attorney-client relationship.” See State v. Gaylord, 78 Hawaii 127, 141, 890 P.2d 1167, 1181 (1995) (“the attorney-client relationship requires ‘the highest degree of trust and confidence.’”).
Editor’s Note. In the interest of full disclosure, I represented Mr. Garcia before the ICA and the HSC.