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Probation conditions and plea withdrawals

Let's take a look today at a couple of recent off-beat criminal cases.

First, there's State v. Voelker, out of the 1st District, where a defendant who'd pled guilty to a fourth-degree misdemeanor domestic violence objected to the conditions of his probation, which included alcohol counseling and random drug tests.  What's off-beat about it is that the court of appeals reversed the trial court's imposition of those conditions because it found there was no evidence showing that alcohol or drugs had any connection to the offense.  Of special interest is this paragraph from the decision:

Despite the trial court's broad discretion in imposing probation conditions, its discretion is not completely unfettered.  When considering whether a probation condition is related to serving the interests of justice, rehabilitating the offender, and ensuring the offender's good behavior, a court should consider "whether the condition (1) is reasonably related to rehabilitating the offender, (2) has some relationship to the crime of which the offender was convicted, and (3) relates to conduct which is criminal or reasonably related to future criminality and serves the statutory ends of probation."

The main reason for the court's decision appears to be the concern that Voelker, who spent substantial time working out of state, would lose his job if he had to comply with the conditions.  Still, one wonders why the court didn't make more of an effort to limit its decision to those facts.  Imposition of random drug testing, for example, is routinely imposed on defendants without any consideration, let alone showing, that drugs played any role in the offense, yet Voelker can be read to prohibit that practice. 

It's doubtful it would survive such an interpretation, of course.  It might be a nice decision to have handy in a case in which a judge imposes some unusual probation conditions, but beyond that, it's of dubious value.

The second interesting decision is one just a couple weeks ago in State v. Fugate, where the 2nd District puzzled over, but did not resolve, the question of what standard should be used in ruling on a motion to withdraw a plea where there had been an agreed sentence.  In plea withdrawals, as in comedy, timing is everything:  if the motion is filed before sentencing, the motion should be liberally granted, but after sentencing, it should be granted only to "correct a manifest injustice."  The reasoning behind that is that otherwise, defendants could plead guilty and then seek to withdraw the pleas if they were dissatisfied with the sentence.

Even though the defendant in Fugate sought to withdraw the plea before sentence was imposed, the trial court applied the post-sentence standard, holding that was appropriate because it was an agreed sentence.  The appellate court puzzled over which standard to use in an agreed sentence case, and finally punted on the issue, concluding that this really wasn't such a case because there'd merely been an agreement to cap the sentence at a maximum of ten years. 

The court's puzzlement is puzzling.  A pre-sentence motion to withdraw should be treated the same regardless of whether or not there's an agreed sentence.  True, in one case the defendant knows what the sentence is, and in the other he doesn't, but in both situations, we know the motion isn't motivated by discovery that the sentence is stiffer than he anticipated, which is the whole reason for imposing a stricter standard on post-sentence motions.

It's not going to come up often, because in most situations in which there's an agreed sentence, the sentence will be imposed immediately, but if it does, this is something to keep in mind.  One other thing Fugate mentioned in passing:  if the defendant skips out on sentencing and is subsequently recaptured, there's an argument to be made that if he seeks to withdraw the plea at that point, it's subject to the much stricter "manifest injustice" standard, because he knows that he's going to get a worse sentence than if he would have showed up for sentencing when he was supposed to.

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