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Lawrence v. Guyer

Supreme Court of Montana

March 26, 2019

LYNN GUYER, Warden, Montana State Prison, Respondent.

          Submitted on: February 6, 2019

          Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DC-12-127 Honorable James A. Haynes, Presiding Judge

          For Petitioner: Joseph E. Lawrence, Self-Represented, Deer Lodge, Montana

          For Respondent: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Mardell Ployhar, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana


         ¶1 Representing himself, Joseph Edward Lawrence filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus asserting he is entitled to relief because he pleaded guilty to two sexual offenses pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S.Ct. 160 (1970), in violation of § 46-12-204(4), MCA, which provides that a "court may not accept a plea of nolo contendere in a case involving a sexual offense[.]" This Court ordered a response from the State. The State filed its response and the matter is now ready for decision.

         ¶2 In August 2012, the State charged Lawrence in the Twenty-First Judicial District Court, Ravalli County, with two counts of soliciting sexual intercourse without consent. The affidavit in support of the Information alleged that Lawrence offered to give a 14-year-old boy a "blow job" in July 2012 and offered to pay a 13-year-old $100 to perform oral sex in September 2007. Following subsequent investigation, the State filed a Second Amended Information adding 243 counts of sexual abuse of children based on Lawrence's possession and production of pornographic images of children.

         ¶3 In May 2014, Lawrence signed a plea agreement in which he agreed to enter an "Alford plea" to amended charges of sexual assault and solicitation for sexual assault. The agreement allowed Lawrence to reserve his right to appeal any denial of his motion to sever the charges, but the District Court did not rule on the severance motion prior to accepting Lawrence's plea. The District Court sentenced Lawrence to thirty years in prison with twenty years suspended. Lawrence appealed, arguing that his conditional plea was invalid because the District Court did not rule on his motion to sever prior to accepting Lawrence's plea. Based upon the State's concession, we reversed and remanded with instructions to vacate the entry of Lawrence's guilty plea and sentence. State v. Lawrence, DA 14-0720, 2016 MT 209N, 2016 Mont. LEXIS 773.

         ¶4 The District Court, upon receiving this Court's Opinion, reinstated the second Amended Information as the effective charging document and set the matter for trial to begin April 28, 2017. However, a month prior to trial, Lawrence requested the District Court dismiss his counsel and that he be permitted to proceed pro se. The District Court granted Lawrence's request. During a final pretrial conference, the State and Lawrence entered into a plea agreement whereby Lawrence pleaded "guilty by Alford" to one count of sexual assault and one count of solicitation for sexual assault and, in exchange, the State dismissed 243 counts of sexual abuse. On June 28, 2017, the District Court imposed a twenty-year sentence with ten years suspended and gave Lawrence credit for 1, 103 days of time already served.

         ¶5 In his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Lawrence raises many claims, including a claim that his Alford pleas are invalid because, pursuant to § 46-12-204(4), MCA, a court may not accept a "plea of nolo contendere in a case involving a sexual offense[.]" Lawrence also relies on State v. Hanson, 2017 MT 280, 389 Mont. 299, 405 P.3d 625, in which this Court determined Hanson's sentence was illegal because the sentence was imposed based on Hanson's no contest plea to a sexual offense. Lawrence's petition requires us to resolve the following dispositive issue:

In Montana, is an "Alford plea" synonymous to a "nolo contendere plea" which, under § 46-12-204(4), MCA, the court may not accept in a case involving a sexual offense?

         ¶6 In Alford, the Supreme Court held that Alford's plea of guilty was valid even though Alford protested his innocence and indicated he would not have pleaded guilty except for the opportunity to limit the possible penalty. The Supreme Court noted that "[s]tate and lower federal courts are divided upon whether a guilty plea can be accepted when it is accompanied by protestations of innocence and hence contains only a waiver of trial but no admission of guilt." Alford, 400 U.S. at 33, 91 S.Ct. at 165. However, the Court concluded that "the Constitution does not bar imposition of a prison sentence upon an accused who is unwilling expressly to admit his guilt but who, faced with grim alternatives, is willing to waive his right to trial and accept the sentence." Alford, 400 U.S. at 36, 91 S.Ct. at 167. Moreover, the fact that Alford's plea "was denominated a plea of guilty rather than a plea of nolo contendere is of no constitutional significance with respect to the issue now before us, for the Constitution is concerned with the practical consequences, not the formal categorizations, of state law." Alford, 400 U.S. at 37, 91 S.Ct. at 167. Thus, while most guilty pleas consist of both a waiver of trial and an admission of guilt, "the latter element is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of criminal penalty." Alford, 400 U.S. at 37, 91 S.Ct. at 167. Significantly, the Supreme Court recognized that a trial judge does not have to accept every constitutionally valid plea merely because a defendant wishes to plead. "A criminal defendant does not have an absolute right under the Constitution to have his guilty plea accepted by the court, . . ." and "the States may bar their courts from accepting guilty pleas from any defendants who assert their innocence." Alford, 400 U.S. at 38, 91 S.Ct. at 169 n.11.

         ¶7 The Montana Legislature responded to Alford by enacting § 46-12-212, MCA (1991), which requires courts to determine whether a factual basis exists to support a guilty plea before accepting it. Section 46-12-212, MCA, provides:

(1)The court may not accept a guilty plea without determining that there is a factual basis for the plea in charges of felonies or ...

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