In my last column, I discussed the procedure that is required for a defendant to enter a plea of guilty to a felony offense.
There must be a hearing, in open court, where the defendant is sworn in and questioned on a variety of issues to establish that he has a clear mind, understands the charge, understands the range of punishment, understands that he has and is waiving the right to trial by jury as well as all of the many procedural rights and protections that that involves, and that the plea is given voluntarily and with full knowledge and understanding of the defendant’s rights and alternatives to pleading guilty.
It is required to be an involved process, and a pleading guilty to a felony involves much more than the defendant checking a box marked guilty and nodding his head.
The reason for this is so that later claims that pleas of guilty were not made freely and voluntarily, with full knowledge and understanding, are rebutted at the outset.
In some courts of this state, however, shortcuts are taken to speed up the process, and move the docket.
One such shortcut is the “group plea,” whereby, if the court has a number of felony pleas to handle on a particular docket, the defendants will be sworn in in a line, or group, and each of the many standard questions are asked of the group, after which they go down the line and each answers.
For example, the Judge will ask: “do each of you understand you have the right to a jury trial?” after which each defendant is to say, one after the other: “Yes.”
Another of the many standard questions asked: “Are you pleading guilty of your own free will?”
And again the group of defendants answer, one after the other: “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
“Do each of you understand the charges you are pleading guilty to?”
And again: “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
“Have each of you had sufficient time to consider your decision to plead guilty?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
“Are each of you satisfied with the services of your lawyer?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
And so forth.
Rather than take 15 to 20 minutes to process each guilty plea in a separate hearing, with this shortcut, a group plea cuts the process down to a fraction of the time. Many believe that this is a good thing, particularly judges who like to move things along quickly.
Some, however, disagree with the soundness of this practice, and the group plea procedure has been roundly criticized by the Court of Appeals.
And in a recent case, the Court of Appeals granted a convict review of his felony guilty plea after a group plea, on the basis that the group plea procedure failed to properly rebut the convict’s claim that his counsel was ineffective, and his claim that the plea was involuntary, unintelligent, and unknowing, and the product of misleading and unreasonable pressure placed upon him in the final minutes before his group plea procedure.
These are the exact types of claims that the guilty plea rules are designed to rebut before they can be made.
In granting the defendant review, the Court of Appeals noted that: “A defendant pleading guilty to a felony and facing years in prison should be addressed individually throughout the plea proceeding to assure that the defendant understands the proceeding and is not merely repeating the answers given by the multiple preceding defendants.”
“The practice of group pleas is incompatible with justice, due process, and fairness. The fact that a practice rife with potential due process problems is being utilized solely to ‘save time’ for the plea court judge is inexcusable.”
And so, the Court of Appeals went on to say that it comes short of holding that group pleas are automatically invalid and impermissible, but made it clear that when a trial court takes a group plea to try to shave time off the length of their docket, they are clearly running a risk that much more time and judicial resources are at stake if such a plea is later challenged.
-- Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org