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Court examines 'entry' of guilty plea withdrawal motions

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The Court of Appeals has ruled that a man convicted of not paying more than $22,000 in child support wrongly interpreted state law about withdrawing his guilty plea, and that the trial judge correctly prevented the man from doing so because he didn’t file a request in writing or justify the withdrawal.

In Thomas A. Peel v. State, No. 76A05-1012-CR-809, the appellate court upheld a judgment from Steuben Circuit Judge Allen Wheat regarding nonsupport of a dependent, a Class C felony. The state charged Peel in May 2009 for the child support arrearage of more than $15,000, and then several months later amended the information to reflect an increase in the total of more than $22,000.

Peel pleaded guilty in August 2010 and acknowledged at the plea hearing that he understood the terms of the agreement and was entering into the plea “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.” More than four months later, the trial court held a sentencing hearing and Peel’s attorney stated that his client wanted to withdraw the guilty plea. Though the withdrawal request wasn’t made in writing as required by Indiana Code 35-35-1-4(b), Peel’s attorney said his client had felt pressured to enter the plea agreement because his cellmate had committed suicide and that traumatic experience influenced his decision about what was in his own best interest.

The trial court denied the motion and heard sentencing arguments, then entered its judgment of conviction and sentence. The judge then issued a written order confirming its denial of Peel’s verbal plea withdrawal motion and concluded it was appropriate under IC 35-35-1-4(b).

On appeal, Peel argued that state statute doesn’t apply to his motion because the verbal request was made before the court entered judgment on the plea. Specifically, the law states that, “After entry of a plea of guilty… the court may allow the defendant by motion to withdraw his plea of guilty… for any fair and just reason unless the state has been substantially prejudiced by reliance upon the defendant’s plea.”

That statute also says the motion “shall be in writing and verified”… and that it “shall state facts in support of the relief demanded.”

Relying on an Indiana Supreme Court case a decade ago in Brightman v. State, 758 N.E. 2d 41, 44 (Ind. 2001), the appellate panel noted that statute governs motions filed “after a defendant pleads guilty but before a sentence is imposed.”

As a result, the appeals panel found Peel incorrectly interpreted the statute to say that it only applies after the “entry of judgment” on a guilty plea.”

“But the plain statutory language is broader than Peel suggests, and it applies anytime ‘after entry of a plea of guilty,’” Judge Edward Najam wrote, using Black’s Law Dictionary to determine the word “entry” means the placement of something before the court.

Peel confuses the two distinct phases of “entry” and “acceptance” of a guilty plea, the appellate panel determined.

Since the statute applied and he didn’t make it in writing as required, the appeals court determined that the trial judge correctly denied his motion. The issue is waived and the appellate court didn’t address whether the motion might have been aimed at correcting any “manifest injustice” as the state Supreme Court has determined these motions are meant to address.

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