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Justices: Appeal not available after guilty plea

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A majority of Indiana Supreme Court justices agreed a man who pleaded guilty couldn't appeal the denial of his pre-trial motion to suppress. Yet one justice believed the plea agreement should have been honored according to its terms, which included reserving the right to object to the denial of the motion to suppress.

In Tommy D. Alvey v. State of Indiana, No. 82S01-0902-CR-66, the state's highest court took the case to clear up conflicting decisions by the Indiana Court of Appeals on whether a person who pleads guilty is allowed to challenge the denial of a motion to suppress or other pre-trial motions on direct appeal.

The majority decided those who plead guilty can't challenge these motions on direct appeal based on precedent limiting the right to appeal following a guilty plea. The justices cited Tumulty v. State, 666 N.E.2d 394, 396 (Ind. 1996), and Lineberry v. State, 747 N.E.2d 1151, 1155 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), to support their ruling.

Justice Frank Sullivan noted that on at least two occasions, the Court of Appeals decided to review the merits of a defendant's pre-trial motion to suppress notwithstanding the fact he had entered a guilty plea, but authority doesn't allow Alvey to challenge his convictions in a direct appeal following his guilty plea.

"To the extent that prior opinions of the Court of Appeals are inconsistent with this conclusion, we disapprove of those decisions," wrote Justice Sullivan. "A trial court lacks the authority to allow defendants the right to appeal the denial of a motion to suppress evidence when a defendant enters a guilty plea, even where a plea agreement maintains that such an appeal is permitted."

Tommy Alvey filed a motion to suppress evidence after he was charged with various drug offenses and carrying a handgun without a license. As part of a plea agreement, he expressly reserved the right to appeal the trial court's ruling on his motion to suppress. The trial court informed him he was allowed to appeal the decision even though he pleaded guilty.

Alvey then appealed the denial of his motion; the Court of Appeals affirmed because it believed his guilty plea foreclosed his right to challenge the pre-trial motions.

Justice Theodore Boehm saw no reason why Alvey's plea agreement shouldn't be kept intact. He voted for remand for consideration of the appeal of the denial of his motion to suppress.

"Permitting such an agreement gives the defendant whatever benefit a guilty plea provides in sentencing and also provides an appeal of the issue that is not subject to discretion of either the trial or appellate court," he wrote in his dissent. "Moreover, if the trial court's ruling on the motion to suppress is reversed, permitting the appeal will have generated an unnecessary sentencing hearing. But neither the court nor the prosecution is under any obligation to agree to such an arrangement unless it is sufficiently confident of success on appeal, or regards the prospect of avoiding a trial a sufficient inducement to agree."

The majority noted some unfairness to Alvey based on his plea because he was told he would be able to appeal the suppression motion. The high court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to give Alvey the option of proceeding with his current plea, absent the right to appeal the suppression order. If he doesn't exercise that option within 90 days of the certification of this opinion, the plea agreement will be vacated.

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