Justices affirm sentence but stress clarity in guilty-plea appeal waivers

Although it upheld a man’s six-year executed sentence for drug convictions, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion reminding trial court about the importance of clarity during guilty-plea sentencing hearings that involve a waiver of a defendant’s right to appeal.

The court on Tuesday granted transfer to Danny Lee Williams v. State of Indiana, 21S-CR-113. Appellant-defendant Danny Williams was sentenced to an aggregate six years on felony charges of dealing in methamphetamine and a narcotic drug.

At his sentencing hearing, Williams was advised that he was waiving his right to appeal his conviction, but the Clark Circuit Court did not clarify that he was also waiving his right to appeal his sentence. The sentencing order, however, specified that Williams was waiving his right to appeal “the sentencing imposed by the Court that is within the range set forth in the agreement.”

But the trial court also appointed a public defender to prepare and file an appeal in Williams’ case, and Williams proceeded with the argument that his sentence was inappropriate. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, granted a motion to dismiss the appeal because of the waiver.

“In Johnson v. State, 145 N.E.3d 785, 786-87 (Ind. 2020), we held that a plea agreement’s generalized statement that the defendant ‘waives right to appeal,’ without more, was insufficient to establish the knowing and voluntary waiver of the defendant’s right to appeal his sentence,” the Supreme Court noted in its Tuesday opinion. “Here, it is not apparent from the plea agreement or the colloquy at the sentencing hearing that Williams knowingly and voluntarily waived the right to appeal his sentence.

“We grant transfer for the sole purpose of reminding trial judges that the plea agreement, guilty plea and sentencing hearing colloquy, and sentencing order must be clear and consistent as to whether a defendant waives only the right to appeal the conviction or the right to appeal the conviction and sentence,” the high court continued. “We affirm the sentence imposed by the trial court, which allows Williams to seek a sentence modification upon his successful completion of a substance abuse treatment program and is not one of the outliers Appellate Rule 7(B) is intended to leaven.”

All justices concurred.

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