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SJC Rules that Conditional Guilty Pleas are Permissible

info-sign-question-mark-1445039-300x265In Commonwealth v. Gomez, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that conditional guilty pleas are permissible.

The background was as follows. Two police officers observed the defendant hand an object to another man (Zimmerman) in exchange for cash. When Zimmerman drove away from the site of the exchange, the officers followed and executed an investigatory stop, in the course of which they seized from Zimmerman’s pocket “a small glassine bag with a white powdery substance…. The officers arrested Zimmerman and then returned to the [location] where they had seen the defendant….  As the officers approached, the defendant reached toward his waistband. The officers each grabbed one of the defendant’s arms…. He moved and shook his body as if trying to remove something from his waist. The officers pat frisked him and found a loaded handgun. On searching him further, they found ammunition” and a glassine bag containing “a substance resembling heroin. The defendant was then arrested.” After the return of indictments charging the defendant with drug and firearm offenses, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from him. The motion was denied. “Prior to the scheduled trial date, the defendant ‘indicated he wishe[d] to plead guilty and avoid the costs of trial, provided he [were] able to secure appellate review of the ruling on the motion to suppress and to withdraw his plea if he prevail[ed] on appeal.’ He argued that ‘the outcome of the trial is a fait accompli, effectively determined by the suppression ruling.’ The Commonwealth … would not agree to a conditional guilty plea…. [The] judge stayed the trial date and reported … the following question: ‘To avoid a trial that is otherwise only required to preserve appellate review of the denial of a dispositive pretrial motion, may the Superior Court, with the Commonwealth’s agreement or over the Commonwealth’s objection, accept a defendant’s guilty plea and sentence the defendant expressly conditioned on [the] defendant’s rights to appeal the denial of the specific dispositive pretrial motion and to withdraw his/her plea if defendant prevails on appeal?’”

The SJC answered the reported question in the affirmative, stating, “We … exercise our superintendence powers … in deciding that a conditional guilty plea is permissible, so long as it is entered with the consent of the Commonwealth and the [trial] court, and the defendant specifies the pretrial motion from which he or she seeks to appeal at the time the plea is entered.” The SJC noted that “[w]ithout the availability of a conditional guilty plea and due to the limited availability of interlocutory review, a defendant typically must proceed to trial in order to preserve his or her appellate rights, even if the defendant desires only to appeal from a particular pretrial ruling…. As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, this is a ‘completely unnecessary waste of time and energy.’ Lefkowitzv. Newsome, 420 U.S. 283, 292 (1975).” In light of its ruling, the SJC asked its “standing advisory committee on the rules of criminal procedure … to propose a suitable amendment to rule 12 to delineate the requirements for conditional guilty pleas. In the interim, we instruct judges and parties to follow the approach taken in Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2),” which “expressly permit[s] conditional guilty pleas.”

Defendants in criminal cases face many difficult choices in the course of the trial process.  Whether to take a case to trial to preserve a viable legal issue, even with the potential risk of a harsher punishment if there is a conviction after trial, is a major decision that requires assistance from a skilled attorney.  If you or a loved one is facing a similarly difficult decision to the defendant in this case, contact Attorney Daniel Cappetta for a free consultation to help you navigate the difficult waters of the criminal justice system.