Merit Decision: Trial Court’s Blanket Refusal to Accept No Contest Pleas Improper; Issue Was Preserved for Appeal. State v. Beasley.

“We conclude that a trial court abuses its discretion when it rejects a no-contest plea as a matter of course without considering the facts and circumstances of the case.”

Justice French

On January 4, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Beasley, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-16. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice French, in which Twelfth District Court of Appeals Judge Robert Ringland sat for Justice Fischer, and  Chief Justice O’Connor concurred in judgment only, the Court held that the trial court’s blanket policy refusing no-contest pleas was an abuse of discretion, and that defense counsel had properly preserved that issue for appeal.  The case was argued May 16, 2017.

Case Background

Andrea Beasley was indicted for possession of cocaine discovered during a traffic stop. Beasley filed a motion to suppress the cocaine on Fourth Amendment and the related Ohio Constitutional grounds.  The court denied the motion.

On the day of trial, Beasley and her lawyer appeared before the trial judge to enter a plea. Before entering the plea, an off-the-record discussion occurred in the judge’s chambers among the judge, defense counsel and the prosecutor.  In open court, defense counsel summarized that discussion on the record, noting that Beasley wanted to plead no-contest in order to preserve the right to appeal the denial of her motion to suppress, but because the judge had a blanket policy of not accepting no-contest pleas, Beasley would enter a guilty plea, given the options.  The judge did not contradict those remarks, and the state added nothing.  The trial judge accepted the guilty plea, and sentenced Beasley to three years of community control.

Appeal

On appeal, in a split decision authored by Judge Mock, joined by Judge Stautberg, the First District affirmed Beasley’s conviction, finding that although it was wrong for a trial court to have a blanket policy against accepting no-contest pleas, the issue was not properly preserved for appeal. To properly preserve it, Beasley should have entered the no contest plea on the record and have the trial court refuse it. Then-Judge Fischer dissented. While agreeing that the blanket policy refusing no contest pleas was improper, Fischer would find that Beasley did properly preserve the record for appeal because Beasley’s counsel noted twice on the record that Beasley wanted to plead no-contest to preserve her right to appeal the denial of her motion to suppress.

Read the oral argument preview here and the analysis of the argument here.

Key Precedent

Crim. R. 11(A) (“A defendant may plead not guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, guilty or, with the consent of the court, no contest.”)

Crim. R. 11(B) (“With reference to the offense or offenses to which the plea is entered: (1) The plea of guilty is a complete admission of the defendant’s guilt. (2) The plea of no contest is not an admission of defendant’s guilt, but is an admission of the truth of the facts alleged in the indictment, information, or complaint, and the plea or admission shall not be used against the defendant in any subsequent civil or criminal proceeding.”)

Crim.R. 12(I) (“The plea of no contest does not preclude a defendant from asserting upon appeal that the trial court prejudicially erred in ruling on a pretrial motion, including a pretrial motion to suppress evidence.”)

State v. Carter, 124 Ohio App.3d 423 (2d Dist. 1997) (Trial court’s blanket policy of refusing to accept no contest plea without particularized consideration of the facts of each case is an abuse of discretion.)

Merit Decision

Analysis

Blanket Policy of Refusing To Accept No-Contest Pleas

According to Justice French, this was an issue of first impression for the court. Perhaps that’s because it is so obvious that such a policy is inappropriate. The court found such a policy, without consideration of the facts and circumstances of each case, to be an abuse of discretion.

Was the Issue Properly Preserved for Appeal?

In case anyone needs a little refresher, Justice French provides it.  A no-contest plea does not bar a defendant from challenging an erroneous pre-trial ruling on appeal.  But a guilty plea waives all previous non-jurisdictional defects.

But, here the court found that Beasley’s guilty plea did not amount to a waiver, because defense counsel made it totally clear on the record that Beasley wanted to plead no contest, but couldn’t because of the trial court’s policy of not accepting such pleas. Since Beasley had no choice, the Ohio high court would not require her to enter the plea, and have the court turn it down, which is what the state had argued.  No point to that. A vain act.

What’s Next for Beasley?

The court of appeals was reversed and the case sent back to the trial court to allow Beasley to enter a new plea (which presumably will be no contest) in keeping with Crim. R. 11.

Case Syllabus

None

Concluding Observations

This was a no-brainer.  I correctly predicted the court would find that the issue was properly preserved for appeal, and the blanket policy was improper.  Again, I wonder why a trial judge would have such a policy.

Justice French gave her colleague Justice Fischer a nice little shout-out.  He dissented in the court of appeals decision when he was a judge on that court (which is why he recused from the Supreme Court case) and the substance of his dissent pretty much mirrors the majority opinion of the court.

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