Guilty plea can be withdrawn where state’s promise was unfulfillable

In Uselman v. State of Minnesota, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota reversed a district court's ruling denying the defendant's request for permission to withdraw his guilty plea. The appeals court ruled that the plea was involuntary and not knowingly made because the district court's sentence included a mandatory five-year period of conditional release contrary to the sentence the state promised to the defendant.

Certain offenses in Minnesota require a period of conditional release following an inmate's completion of his or her prison sentence. The offender is released from prison but placed under supervision and must comply with certain conditions or face being sent back to prison to serve out the remainder of the conditional release period in prison.

Background and procedural history

In 2010, the state filed criminal charges against the defendant, alleging a single count of fourth-degree assault. The defendant and the state reached a plea agreement that required the defendant to plead guilty in exchange for the state's dismissal of another, unrelated pending complaint against him. The plea petition was written on a preprinted form with several fill-in-the-blank spaces for inserting handwritten information. In the blank space specifying the agreed period of conditional release, a handwritten note "N/A" was inserted. The plea petition was signed by the defendant and accepted by the district court at the plea hearing.

However, contrary to the terms of the plea petition, the Minnesota statute for this offense had a mandatory requirement that the court's sentence must include a conditional release for a term of five years. The district court's initial sentence did not contain a period of conditional release, but the court subsequently corrected the sentence to add a five-year conditional release period after a corrections agent pointed out the error.

The defendant did not file an appeal to challenge his conviction or sentence, but he later filed a petition for post-conviction relief, requesting court permission to withdraw the guilty plea. The defendant asserted that the plea was not knowingly or intelligently made because his plea petition specified that a conditional release period was "not applicable" in his case and he did not know about the statute's mandatory period of conditional release when he entered the guilty plea. The court denied the petition, concluding that the defendant knew about of the conditional release since it was specifically mentioned in the corrections agent's sentencing worksheet, which the defendant had reviewed and agreed to, and the defendant never objected when the conditional release period was added to his sentence.

The defendant filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals' ruling

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the defendant should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea because it was not voluntarily and knowingly made. The court said the defendant's guilty plea was involuntary because it was based on a promise that was not fulfilled and could never be fulfilled, since the sentence he was promised was not authorized by law.

The court also stated that the plea was involuntary because, once the district court realized that the plea petition included an unfulfillable promise by the state that a post-imprisonment conditional release period would not apply, before imposing a sentence greater than that which the parties had agreed to, the court was required to first inform the defendant of this discrepancy and give him an opportunity to withdraw the guilty plea.

Individuals facing criminal trials should seek the advice and assistance of a competent defense attorney to ensure that their rights are protected.