State v. James

Decision Date03 September 1985
Citation497 A.2d 402,197 Conn. 358
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Melvin Owen JAMES.

G. Douglas Nash, Asst. Public Defender, with whom, on brief, was Joette Katz, Public Defender, for appellant (defendant).

William Domnarski, Deputy Asst. State's Atty., with whom, on brief, were Michael Sullivan and Carl Schuman, Asst. State's Attys., for appellee (state).


ARTHUR H. HEALEY, Associate Justice.

This appeal arises from the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion to withdraw his plea of guilty in this matter. We address the critical issue of whether, under our rules of practice, the failure of the trial court, prior to accepting the defendant's plea, to advise him of the maximum possible sentence to which he would be exposed, constituted reversible error.

The salient facts are as follows. On February 11, 1981, the defendant was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Wesley Jackson. At approximately 2 p.m., police officers stopped the vehicle to check Jackson's motor vehicle license. During the stop and ensuing investigation, the police found an unregistered .38 caliber revolver in the car. The defendant later admitted that the gun was in his possession and that the driver, Jackson, had had no knowledge of it. On July 14, 1981, the defendant pleaded guilty under the Alford doctrine 1 to a charge of carrying a weapon in a motor vehicle in violation of General Statutes § 29-38.

At the hearing during which the defendant entered his guilty plea, the trial court, Norcott, J., canvassed the defendant, who was represented by counsel, as to the nature of his plea. See Practice Book § 711. 2 In response to the court's inquiries, the defendant stated that his plea was voluntary and that he understood he was waiving his rights to a jury trial, to remain silent, and not to incriminate himself. Further, the defendant acknowledged that he was satisfied with the advice of his attorney, that he was pleading guilty under the Alford doctrine, and that he understood that the state was not recommending a sentence. The defendant also stated that he understood and agreed with the state's version of the facts in this case. Before accepting the plea, however, the trial court did not inform the defendant of the maximum possible penalty for the offense to which he pleaded guilty, and it also failed to elicit expressly a waiver of his constitutional right to confront and cross-examine his accusers.

Thereafter, on September 22, 1982, the defendant, who had not yet been sentenced, appeared in court on a written motion to withdraw his guilty plea. As a ground for withdrawing the plea, the defense counsel cited the failure to comply with Practice Book § 711 and argued that the court had failed to inform the defendant of the maximum possible sentence for the offense. After a hearing, the trial court, Chernauskas, J., denied the motion to withdraw the plea, stating that the defendant had been "made fully aware of everything involved here." The defendant then took an exception. The trial court, Gray, J., sentenced the defendant on October 8, 1982, to imprisonment for a term of five years, suspended after three years, with five years of probation and a one thousand dollar fine. 3

On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court erred in denying the motion to withdraw his plea in that the court failed in its canvass (1) to advise him of the maximum possible penalty for the offense to which he pleaded guilty and (2) to elicit an express waiver from him of his federal constitutional right to confront and cross-examine his accusers. We agree with the defendant that it was reversible error to deny his motion to withdraw his plea.

"After a guilty plea is accepted but before the imposition of sentence the court is obligated [under Practice Book § 720 4 to permit withdrawal upon proof of one of the grounds in § 721." 5 State v. Torres, 182 Conn. 176, 185, 438 A.2d 46 (1980); see also State v. Lasher, 190 Conn. 259, 265, 460 A.2d 970 (1983); State v. Deboben, 187 Conn. 469, 474, 446 A.2d 828 (1982). One of these grounds is that "[t]he plea was accepted without substantial compliance with Sec. 711." Practice Book § 721(1); see generally State v. Godek, 182 Conn. 353, 357, 438 A.2d 114 (1980), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 1031, 101 S.Ct. 1741, 68 L.Ed.2d 226 (1981). The question here is whether the trial court's failure to inform the defendant of the maximum possible sentence to which his plea exposed him fell below the standard that constitutes "substantial compliance" with § 711.

Under our rules of practice, a trial judge must not accept a plea of guilty "without first addressing the defendant personally and determining that the plea is voluntarily made under Practice Book § 712 and that the defendant fully understands the items enumerated in Practice Book § 711." (Citations omitted.) State v. Martin, 197 Conn. 17, 23, 495 A.2d 1028 (1985). "Practice Book § 711 was promulgated to ensure that such guilty pleas are made voluntarily and with full knowledge of the waiver of constitutional rights." State v. Suggs, 194 Conn. 223, 226, 478 A.2d 1008 (1984). In pertinent part Practice Book § 711 requires that "[t]he judicial authority shall not accept the plea without first addressing the defendant personally and determining that he fully understands: ... (4) The maximum possible sentence on the charge, including, if there are several charges, the maximum sentence possible from consecutive sentences and including, when applicable, the fact that a different or additional punishment may be authorized by reason of a previous conviction...." See also State v. Godek, supra.

The state does not dispute the defendant's contention that the trial court failed to comply with subsection 4 of Practice Book § 711 in that the defendant was not informed of the maximum possible penalty for the crime charged. Rather, the state argues that, because the right to be informed of the maximum possible penalty for the crime charged is of nonconstitutional dimension, to constitute reversible error the defendant must demonstrate that he would have pleaded differently had the court fully complied with Practice Book § 711. We do not agree.

We have stated that Practice Book § 711(4) is an express recognition "[t]hat the defendant's awareness of the maximum sentence possible is an essential factor in determining whether to plead guilty...." (Emphasis added.) State v. Childree, 189 Conn. 114, 126, 454 A.2d 1274 (1983). "The length of time a defendant may have to spend in prison is clearly crucial to a decision of whether or not to plead guilty." (Emphasis added.) State v. Collins, 176 Conn. 7, 9-10, 404 A.2d 871 (1978). Accordingly, Practice Book § 711(4) "require[s] that the court determine that the defendant 'fully understands' those consequences." (Emphasis added.) D'Amico v. Manson, 193 Conn. 144, 155 n. 9, 476 A.2d 543 (1984); see State v. Anonymous (1980-9), 36 Conn.Sup. 578, 580, 421 A.2d 557 (1980).

"The rules of statutory construction apply with equal force to Practice Book rules. State v. Cook, 183 Conn. 520, 521, 441 A.2d 41 (1981). 'Where the meaning of a statute [or rule] is plain and unambiguous, the enactment speaks for itself and there is no occasion to construe it.' " Grievance Committee v. Trantolo, 192 Conn. 15, 22, 470 A.2d 228 (1984), quoting Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations v. Board of Education, 177 Conn. 68, 73, 411 A.2d 28 (1979). The requirements of the rule are clear. We do not mandate that a trial court, in making the determinations required by § 711, speak in the very words of that rule because "[m]atters of reality, and not mere ritual, should be controlling." McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 467-68 n. 20, 89 S.Ct. 1166, 1171-72 n. 20, 22 L.Ed.2d 418 (1969), quoting Kennedy v. United States, 397 F.2d 16, 17 (6th Cir.1968). In discharging its obligations under § 711, the court's inquiries need not be so restricted that "the [j]udge [must] mount the bench with a script in his hand"; Sappington v. United States, 468 F.2d 1378, 1380 (8th Cir.1972); and although "not a script, perhaps, but [with] some sort of checklist, as a prompter, so that whatever form the dialogue takes, all of the necessary lines will be delivered." United States v. Fels, 599 F.2d 142, 149 n. 6 (7th Cir.1979). Unfortunately, all the "necessary lines" required by § 711 were not delivered so as to make for conformity with the rule. It matters not that § 711 incorporates nonconstitutional as well as constitutional rights; the rule requires both be addressed. There was not on this record, as the state suggests, substantial compliance with § 711 because of the trial court's failure to address § 711(4) at all.

In the present case, the record clearly discloses that the trial court accepted the defendant's plea without first determining that the defendant was aware of and understood the maximum possible sentence to which he was exposed. The plea was therefore accepted in contravention of Practice Book § 711(4); see State v. Eason, 192 Conn. 37, 45, 470 A.2d 688 (1984); the requirements of which we have previously recognized as both "clearly crucial"; State v. Collins, supra; and "an essential factor"; State v. Childree, supra; to an accused's grave decision whether to plead guilty to any charged offense. In addition, there is nothing in the record to indicate that the defendant had actual knowledge of the maximum possible consequences of his plea. See D'Amico v. Manson, supra; see also United States v. Hamilton, 568 F.2d 1302, 1306 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 436 U.S. 944, 98 S.Ct. 2846, 56 L.Ed.2d 785 (1978); Bond, Plea Bargaining and Guilty Pleas (2d Ed.1982) § 3.5(b). The record, thus, in addition to disclosing the lack of any inquiry concerning the maximum possible sentence, is barren of any indication that this defendant was...

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