State v. Blackman (Ex parte Blackman), 1190105

CourtSupreme Court of Alabama
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
Citation312 So.3d 1246
Parties EX PARTE James Antuam BLACKMAN (In re: State of Alabama v. James Antuam Blackman)
Docket Number1190105
Decision Date12 June 2020

312 So.3d 1246


(In re: State of Alabama
James Antuam Blackman)


Supreme Court of Alabama.

June 12, 2020

Jonathan B. Friedlander and Donald A. Friedlander, Mobile, for petitioner.

Clay Rossi and Louis Walker, asst. dist. attys., 13th Judicial Circuit, Mobile, for respondents.


James Antuam Blackman petitions this Court for a writ of mandamus directing Judge James Patterson of the Mobile Circuit Court ("the trial court") to set aside an order setting Blackman's case for trial, to reinstate Blackman's guilty plea that the trial court withdrew sua sponte, and to proceed to sentencing Blackman on his guilty-plea convictions. Because the trial court's sua sponte withdrawal of Blackman's guilty plea subjects Blackman to double jeopardy and thus divests the trial court of jurisdiction to conduct a trial, we grant the petition and issue the writ.

Facts and Procedural History

Blackman, an employee of the City of Prichard, was indicted by the Mobile County grand jury on 47 separate charges, including 22 counts of first-degree theft of property, 9 counts of second-degree theft of property, 9 counts of third-degree theft of property, 3 counts of fourth-degree theft of property, and 4 counts of using his official position for personal gain. At a hearing on March 7, 2019, Blackman entered a blind guilty plea to all counts.1 Blackman, his attorney, and the trial court signed the "Explanation of Rights and Plea of Guilty" form, commonly known as an Ireland form.2 The trial court entered an order accepting Blackman's plea and adjudicating him guilty, stating:

"This Court having ascertained that [Blackman] understands his constitutional rights, the nature of the crimes charged in the indictment and the consequences of his Best Interest Plea of Guilty, [Blackman] understandingly and voluntarily waives his constitutional rights and pleads guilty. [Blackman] with the assistance of his attorney informed the Court that there are no issues reserved for appeal."

The trial court set a sentencing hearing for May 6, 2019, and ordered a presentence investigation. According to Blackman, the convictions are subject to Alabama's presumptive sentencing standards, see § 12-25-30 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, which, he

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states, mandate a non-prison sentence for his convictions.

On March 9, 2019, the State of Alabama filed a motion seeking the trial court's consent to prove aggravating factors at sentencing to depart from the non-prison-sentence recommendation in the presumptive sentencing standards.3 Citing the Presumptive and Voluntary Sentencing Standards Manual, effective October 1, 2016, promulgated by the Alabama Sentencing Commission ("the sentencing-standards manual"), the State acknowledged that the prosecutor is generally required to give the defendant notice of intent to present aggravating factors seven days before trial but that the sentencing-standards manual allows the trial court to consent to notice at any time for good cause shown if the defendant is provided an opportunity to research and rebut the prosecutor's request.4 The State asserted that it could establish good cause because, it says, Blackman "unexpectedly rejected the State's [plea-deal] offer" at the March 7, 2019, hearing, which, it asserted, negated the customary triggering event of the trial. The State also asserted that Blackman had waived the seven-day notice requirement by pleading guilty prior to his trial date. The State further asserted that consenting to the State's notice of aggravating factors would not prejudice Blackman because, it argued, the grounds for the aggravating factors were apparent from the indictments and Blackman would have the opportunity to research and rebut the aggravating factors before the sentencing hearing. On March 12, 2019, without a response from Blackman, the trial court granted the State's motion.

On April 12, 2019, Blackman filed an objection to the State's motion, arguing that the State's notice of its intent to prove aggravating factors was untimely and that allowing the State the opportunity to prove aggravating factors after the trial court's acceptance of the guilty plea would render that plea involuntary because, he asserted, he was not given proper notice of the sentencing range before pleading guilty. Blackman stated that he

"entered his plea believing that the [presumptive sentencing standards] would apply since the State had not given notice of intent to assert aggravating factors. However, aggravating factors -- if proven –- would give the [trial] court the option of a departure sentence pursuant to the statutory sentencing range. If the State is excused from its failure to give timely notice (or at least any notice prior to the plea), then it would mean Mr. Blackman could not have knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered his pleas. Accordingly, a sentence outside
312 So.3d 1249
the presumptive [sentencing standards] would be unconstitutional ...."

Blackman, however, did not request an opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea, and he did not otherwise seek to set aside his guilty-plea convictions entered by the trial court.

On April 15, 2019, the trial court entered an order setting aside its March 12, 2019, order allowing the State to prove aggravating factors. The trial court further stated that "Mr. Blackman's plea was obviously not entered ‘freely, voluntarily, and knowingly.’ Therefore, the court considers it WITHDRAWN, and so orders." The trial court reset a disposition date for May 2, 2019. On April 16, 2019, Blackman filed a motion to set aside the trial court's April 15, 2019, order insofar as it sua sponte withdrew his guilty plea. Blackman asserted that he did not request that his guilty plea be withdrawn and that he did not intend for the trial court to withdraw his guilty plea. Blackman cited Rule 14.4(e), Ala. R. Crim. P.,5 among other legal authority, in arguing that the trial court acted beyond its authority in sua sponte ordering the withdrawal of his guilty plea. Blackman further argued that the trial court's withdrawal of his guilty plea provided the State "another ‘bite at the apple’ " and an opportunity to pursue a departure from the presumptive sentencing standards.6

On April 18, 2019, the trial court entered an order denying Blackman's motion to set aside its April 15 order. The trial court stated, among other things:

"Because Mr. Blackman correctly pointed out that a defendant must be apprised of the correct maximum and minimum sentences for his guilty plea to be ‘knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered, and because this court may have mistakenly granted the state's motion to prove aggravating factors after Mr. Blackman had already pled guilty, and after reviewing the principles set forth in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 240 [89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d 274] (1969), and the frankly ‘goofy’ procedural posture of this case now, undersigned decided to go back in time and do a ‘do over’ and therefore ordered Mr. Blackman's plea vacated as well."

The trial court noted that, because Blackman had stated in his motion to set aside that he " ‘could not have knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily entered his pleas’ " and that " ‘a sentence outside of presumptive [sentencing standards] would be unconstitutional,’ " Blackman was "obviously ... telling [the trial court] ... that his plea was not given freely, voluntarily, and knowingly." The trial court concluded: "Because of these facts, and because I am supposed to facilitate and not prevent justice, this Court ... VACATED Mr. Blackman's prior guilty plea." The trial court went on to explain that "[t]his is essentially a ‘do-over’ like kids used to do on the play yard. We are back to where we were before Mr. Blackman decided to plead to anything."

According to Blackman, at a hearing on May 2, 2019, he informed the trial court that he stood on his previously entered

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guilty plea, and he renewed his argument that the trial court lacked the authority to set it aside. That same day, the trial court entered an order setting Blackman's case for trial on November 12, 2019.

On October 29, 2019, Blackman filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the Court of Criminal Appeals. On October 31, 2019, that court, by order, dismissed Blackman's petition as untimely. Ex parte Blackman (No. CR-19-0080, Oct. 31, 2019), 313 So. 3d 57 (Ala. Crim. App. 2019)(table). On November 4, 2019, Blackman filed in this Court a petition for a writ of mandamus and a motion to stay the trial-court proceedings. On November 8, 2019, a majority of this Court granted Blackman's motion to stay the trial-court proceedings.

Standard of Review

"This Court has held that an accused's constitutional right[ ] against being twice placed in jeopardy cannot be adequately protected by appellate review and that the writ of mandamus is appropriate in a case in which the petitioner argues that former jeopardy bars a retrial on the charges against him." Ex parte Head, 958 So. 2d 860, 865 (Ala. 2006) (citing Ex parte Roberts, 662 So. 2d 229, 231 (Ala. 1995) ).

Under Rule 21(e)(1), Ala. R. App. P., a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals on an original petition for a writ of mandamus...

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