In re Coats, 83544–6.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Citation173 Wash.2d 123,267 P.3d 324
Decision Date17 November 2011
Docket NumberNo. 83544–6.,83544–6.
PartiesIn the Matter of the Personal Restraint of Jeffrey A. COATS, Petitioner.

173 Wash.2d 123
267 P.3d 324

In the Matter of the Personal Restraint of Jeffrey A. COATS, Petitioner.

No. 83544–6.

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc.

Argued Jan. 20, 2011.Decided Nov. 17, 2011.

[267 P.3d 326]

Jeffrey Erwin Ellis, Portland, OR, for Petitioner.

Kathleen Proctor, Pierce County Prosecuting Atty. Ofc., Tacoma, WA, for Respondent.


[173 Wash.2d 125] ¶ 1 In 1995, Jeffrey Coats pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, and robbery, all in the first degree. He received a standard range sentence of 20 years. His judgment and sentence erroneously states that the maximum sentence for conspiracy to commit robbery is life in prison. Fourteen years later, he filed a personal restraint petition contending that because of the erroneous statement, his judgment is not valid on its face and therefore he should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. We take this occasion to review our jurisprudence regarding the statutory one-year time [173 Wash.2d 126] limit for collateral attacks on judgments that are valid on their faces under RCW 10.73.090. We conclude that Coats's judgment is valid on its face despite the error; that the sentencing court did not exceed its authority in sentencing Coats; and that Coats's petition must be denied.


¶ 2 Resolution of the issues presented does not turn on the facts of Coats's crime. We briefly describe the event for context. In 1994, when he was 14 years old, Coats and two friends decided to kill a man and steal his BMW. They armed themselves with a kitchen knife and a pipe in a bag that they would later claim was a gun. A security patrol officer found the three and chased them away from their intended victim. They wandered until they spotted David Grenier parking his Lexus. The three friends approached Grenier, robbed him, duct taped his hands and feet together, locked him in the trunk of his car, and drove him to a secluded spot near the Puyallup River. Being mercifully inept, one of the friends accidentally opened the trunk and Grenier was able to escape.

¶ 3 Coats was initially charged with six counts: I. conspiracy to commit kidnapping, II. conspiracy to commit first degree robbery, III. conspiracy to commit first degree murder, IV. first degree kidnapping, V. first degree robbery, and VI. first degree attempted murder. The juvenile court declined jurisdiction. While one of his friends was being tried, Coats pleaded guilty to first degree robbery, conspiracy to commit first degree robbery, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. Likely, in return for his guilty plea, the prosecution dropped the other three charges and made a standard range sentencing recommendation on the rest.

¶ 4 Unfortunately, the judgment and sentence signed by the trial judge contained an error. The judgment erroneously reported that the maximum sentence for conspiracy [173 Wash.2d 127] to commit first degree robbery was life in prison. The Statement of the Defendant on Plea of Guilty states that the maximum was 20 years.1 The parties before us agree that

[267 P.3d 327]

the maximum sentence available at the time for conspiracy to commit first degree robbery was in fact 10 years. Both documents correctly state that the maximum sentence on the other two charges was life in prison. Coats received standard range sentences of 51 months for conspiracy to commit robbery, 240 months for conspiracy to commit murder, and 109 months for robbery, all to be served concurrently. Coats did not appeal.

¶ 5 Fourteen years later, Coats filed this personal restraint petition in the Court of Appeals, alleging that since his judgment and sentence contained an obvious error it was invalid on its face. In Coats's view, the error on the judgment opened the door to allow him to attack the validity of his guilty plea. Coats reasons that because his “plea was based on misinformation about a direct consequence, it was neither knowing nor voluntary.” Pers. Restraint Pet. at 2. The Court of Appeals dismissed the petition by order of the acting chief judge on the ground that the error was merely a “ ‘technical misstatement that had no actual effect on the rights of the petitioner.’ ” Order Dismissing Pet. and Denying Mot. for Release from Custody at 2 (quoting In re Pers. Restraint of McKiearnan, 165 Wash.2d 777, 783, 203 P.3d 375 (2009) (Wash.Ct.App. Aug. 19, 2009)). We granted Coats's motion for review “only on the issue of whether Petitioner's [173 Wash.2d 128] judgment and sentence is facially invalid, and if so, whether he is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea.” Order (Wash. June 2, 2010).


¶ 6 Coats challenges his detention through a personal restraint petition. Personal restraint petitions are modern version of ancient writs, most prominently habeas corpus, that allow petitioners to challenge the lawfulness of confinement. Toliver v. Olsen, 109 Wash.2d 607, 609–11, 746 P.2d 809 (1987).

¶ 7 Habeas predates both Washington State and the United States. As we noted recently, it is

“a writ antecedent to statute, and throwing its root deep into the genius of our common law.... It is perhaps the most important writ known to the constitutional law of England, affording as it does a swift and imperative remedy in all cases of illegal restraint or confinement. It is of immemorial antiquity, an instance of its use occurring in the thirty-third year of Edward I.”

In re Pers. Restraint of Grantham, 168 Wash.2d 204, 210, 227 P.3d 285 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Fay v. Noia, 372 U.S. 391, 400, 83 S.Ct. 822, 9 L.Ed.2d 837 (1963), overruled in part on other grounds by Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977)). It is embedded in the common law. Horace G. Wood & Charles F. Bridge, A Treatise on the Legal Remedies of Mandamus and Prohibition, Habeas Corpus, Certiorari, and Quo Warranto 111 (3d ed. 1896) (citing People ex rel. Tweed v. Liscomb, 60 N.Y. 559 (1875)). “The writ of habeas corpus existed at common law prior to the promulgation of the Magna Charta.” In re Habeas Corpus of Grieve, 22 Wash.2d 902, 904, 158 P.2d 73 (1945). For much of our history, this court restricted its post-conviction collateral review of final judgments to “but one question ... Is this a judgment or a nullity?” without any consideration of the record. Id. [173 Wash.2d 129] This seemed to be predicated on the principle that as habeas was a writ, relief was not available if there was an adequate remedy at law, such as an appeal. In re Habeas Corpus of Cavitt, 170 Wash. 84, 15 P.2d 276 (1932) (holding that habeas relief was available when trial judge sua sponte ordered man who had finished serving his sentence to serve it again). However, by case law, court rule, and ultimately, by statute, consideration of collateral challenges expanded. See Laws of 1989, ch. 395 (enacting a personal restraint petition statute); 2

[267 P.3d 328]

Holt v. Morris, 84 Wash.2d 841, 843–45, 529 P.2d 1081 (1974). (reviewing expansion of judicial review and collateral relief since 1947). But this strict limitation on the scope of collateral review has long been in tension with concern about unlawful or unjustified detentions. In 1949, this court explicitly looked to the charging document when it was not possible to ascertain the charge from the judgment and sentence, found that the defendant had been sentenced for grand larceny after pleading guilty to petit larceny. Sorenson v. Smith, 34 Wash.2d 659, 661, 664, 209 P.2d 479 (1949). Over a sharp dissent that would have allowed the defendant to withdraw his plea and start over, the court granted relief and ordered resentencing.3 For a brief time, by court rule, judges could order full evidentiary hearings whenever a collateral challenge[173 Wash.2d 130] “ ‘appears to have any basis in fact or law’ ” and relief could be granted if the court found “ ‘that the conviction was obtained ... in violation of the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution or laws of the State of Washington,’ ” among other things. Holt, 84 Wash.2d at 847–48, 529 P.2d 1081 (quoting former CrR 7.7(b), (g) (rescinded effective July 1, 1976)). This appears to have been the high water mark for the scope of collateral challenges.

¶ 8 Habeas corpus has also been a part of the fabric of Washington statutes for as long as we have existed as Washington. The very first territorial legislature enacted a generous habeas corpus act in 1854. Laws of 1854, §§ 434–456. It proudly proclaims that “[e]very person restrained of his liberty under any pretence whatever, may prosecute a writ of habeas corpus to enquire into the cause of the restraint, and shall be delivered therefrom when illegal.” Id. § 434. One restrained could demand that his or her custodian prove that the restraint was lawful. Id. § 435. The court would “determine the cause, and if no legal cause be shown for the restraint ... shall discharge the party.” Id. § 444. However, this generous act for challenging most types of restraint was more restrictive when challenging restraints imposed by courts.4 “No court or judge shall enquire into the legality of any judgment or process [173 Wash.2d 131] whereby the party is in custody, or discharge him when the term of commitment has not expired ... [u]pon any process issued on any final judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction.” Id. § 445. This principle was reenacted by many subsequent

[267 P.3d 329]

legislatures. See Laws of 1869, § 617; Code of 1881, § 677; Laws of 1891, ch. 43, § 1; Laws of 1947, ch. 256, § 3. The courts and the legislature, while certainly not eliminating the judges' authority to issue writs of habeas corpus, have provided for judicial review and refined collateral challenges to court imposed sentences. Currently, a conviction may be collaterally challenged on any grounds for a year after it is final, though relief will only be available if the petitioner can meet other high burdens. RCW 10.73.090; In re Pers....

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