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State v. Slater

February 4, 2009

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
TONY L. SLATER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal is whether the trial court correctly denied defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea before sentencing.

On March 31, 2002, two officers with the Buena Borough Police Department wanted to question Timmy Hass about a series of burglaries. The officers contacted their counterparts at the Millville Police Department, and were informed that Hass and another person, Jeffrey Neider, both white males, might be located in Room 261 at the Millville Motor Inn. In addition, they were told that the two men probably had one-half ounce of cocaine with them in the room and that there were two outstanding warrants for Neider's arrest. The officers proceeded to Room 261 at the Millville Motor Inn and knocked on the door. An African-American male answered; he gave the officers a false name at first and was later identified as defendant Tony Slater. At this point, the officers had no reason to believe that Slater was involved in any wrongdoing.

The officers asked Slater if they could come in and talk with him, and Slater invited them in. The officers explained they were looking for Hass and Neider. With Slater's permission, they checked the room to see if anyone else was present but did not find anyone. Slater, sitting on a bed, advised he did not know either man. At around the same time, one officer saw what appeared to be a small bag of marijuana in a dresser drawer that was open about six inches. After frisking and handcuffing Slater, the officers opened the drawer and, in addition to the marijuana, found approximately fifteen grams of crack cocaine, a box of Phillies Blunt cigars, and a digital scale.

A grand jury indicted Slater on July 31, 2002 and charged him with third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS), second-degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute, and third-degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute within a school zone. Slater moved to suppress the evidence and argued that the warrantless search of the motel room was unlawful. The trial court denied the motion. Slater and the State reached a plea agreement afterward. Under the agreement, Slater was to plead guilty to second-degree possession with intent to distribute. In exchange, the State agreed to dismiss the remaining two counts and recommend a five-year prison sentence.

Slater pleaded guilty on December 31, 2004. An hour before the plea, Slater had expressed some dissatisfaction with his attorney, but in response to questioning by the trial court he indicated that he was satisfied with the lawyer's services. The court ruled that there was a sufficient factual basis for the plea and found that Slater entered the plea knowingly, voluntarily, and without coercion.

Twelve days after the plea hearing, on January 12, 2005, Slater filed a pro se motion for withdrawal of the guilty plea, claiming in a handwritten letter that he had no control over the drugs. Slater also moved to suppress the evidence. Slater's handwritten letter was attached to his presentence report, which was dated January 27, 2005. The offense section of the report recounted that Slater reportedly told police the motel room was rented by his brother-inlaw and that he was just visiting. Defendant's version of events in the presentence report declared that Slater denied culpability for the offense. He stated that his sister's boyfriend had brought him to the motel room "to chill." Slater reported that neither the cocaine nor the marijuana belonged to him and that he did not know that drugs were in the room. The presentence report noted that Slater wanted to retract his plea.

At the sentencing hearing on February 4, 2005, Slater repeated his version of events as declared in the presentence report. In addition, he told the court that the only reason he entered into the plea agreement was because his lawyer told him he would lose if he went to trial. The trial court ruled that "changing your mind" did not provide a sufficient basis to withdraw a guilty plea and denied Slater's motion. In addition, the court again denied the motion to suppress, over Slater's objection. The court followed the recommendation in the plea agreement and sentenced Slater to five years in prison.

Slater appealed. He challenged the suppression ruling and argued that the trial court erred in denying the motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The Appellate Division rejected both claims. As to the latter issue, the panel agreed that Slater's "change of mind" provided no basis for withdrawal of his guilty plea.

The Supreme Court granted Slater's petition for certification limited to the plea withdrawal issue.

HELD: Judges are to consider and balance four factors in evaluating motions to withdraw a guilty plea: (1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of the defendant's reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal could result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused. This defendant has met his burden and is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea in the interest of justice.

1. The court rules are designed to ensure that pleas are supported by a factual basis and are entered voluntarily and knowingly, that is, with a full understanding of the charge and the consequences of the plea. R. 3:9-2. Consideration of a plea withdrawal request can and should begin with proof that before accepting the plea, the trial court followed the dictates of Rule 3:9-2. But the analysis cannot end there. To evaluate a plea withdrawal motion thoroughly and properly, other pertinent issues must be considered in the context of the specific facts of a case. Such a flexible approach will help ensure that justice is done in each case. The court rules set forth two standards that are dependent on the time a plea withdrawal motion is made. Motions filed at or before the time of sentencing will be granted in the "interests of justice," R. 3:9-3(e); post-sentencing motions must meet a higher standard of "manifest injustice" to succeed. R. 3:21-1. Under either standard, a plea may only be set aside in the exercise of the court's discretion. Labeling a defendant's motion to retract a plea as a "change in mind" does not necessarily reveal much. All withdrawal motions, by definition, entail a change of mind. The Court holds that trial judges are to consider and balance four factors in evaluating motions to withdraw a guilty plea: (1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of defendant's reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal would result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused. Trial courts should consider and balance all of the factors in assessing a motion for withdrawal of a plea. No factor is mandatory; if one is missing, that does not automatically disqualify or dictate relief. (Pp. 8-20)

2. The Court notes that there was an ample basis for the trial court's finding that Slater entered his guilty plea knowingly and voluntarily, pursuant to Rule 3:9-2. Applying the four factors, the Court concludes: 1) Slater unequivocally asserted his innocence and presented specific, potentially plausible facts, and not simply a bald assertion; 2) Slater's primary reason for attempting to withdraw the plea dovetails with his assertion of innocence and finds support in the record, providing a sufficiently strong reason to support his request for withdrawal; 3) Slater's plea of guilty was part of a plea bargain, a fact that weighs against him, but the Court cannot conclude that enforcing the plea agreement in this case outweighs other factors; and 4) the State has not articulated any prejudice beyond the ordinary trial preparation required of it and, in the overall spectrum of cases, this one appears to be relatively straightforward. Slater's pre-sentence motion to withdraw his plea was rejected as a "change of mind" and went largely unexplored. On balancing the above factors, the Court finds that Slater has met his burden and is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea in the interests of justice. (Pp. 20-24)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Rabner

Argued October 7, 2008

Defendant Tony Slater pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and sought to withdraw his plea before sentencing. The sole question in this appeal is whether the trial court correctly denied defendant's motion to set aside the plea.

In evaluating motions to withdraw a guilty plea, trial courts should consider the following factors: (1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of defendant's reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal would result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused. On balancing those factors in the context of defendant's pre-sentence motion to withdraw, we find that defendant has carried his burden and is entitled to withdraw his guilty plea. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court's ruling.

I.

On March 31, 2002, two officers with the Buena Borough Police Department wanted to question Timmy Hass about a series of burglaries. The officers contacted their counterparts at the Millville Police Department, patrolmen Terry Fawcett and David Kahn, for help in locating Hass. In response, Fawcett and Kahn spoke to a Mr. F. Mr. F. told them that Hass and another person, Jeffrey Neider, both white males, might be located in Room 261 at the Millville Motor Inn. Mr. F. also relayed that the two men probably had one-half ounce of cocaine with them in the room. Fawcett and Kahn checked for outstanding warrants and learned of two warrants for Neider's arrest.

The officers proceeded to Room 261 at the Millville Motor Inn and knocked on the door. An African-American male answered; he gave the officers a false name at first and was later identified as defendant Tony Slater. At this point, the officers had no reason to believe that Slater was involved in any wrongdoing.

Kahn asked Slater if the officers could come in out of the rain and talk with him, and Slater invited them in. Fawcett and Kahn entered the motel room and explained they were looking for Hass and Neider. With Slater's permission, they checked the room to see if anyone else was present but did not find anyone. Slater, sitting on a bed, advised he did not know either man. At around the same time, Fawcett saw what appeared to be a small bag of marijuana in a dresser drawer that was open about six inches. After frisking and handcuffing Slater, the officers opened the drawer and, in addition to the marijuana, found approximately fifteen grams of crack cocaine, a box of Phillies Blunt cigars, and a digital scale.

A grand jury indicted Slater on July 31, 2002 and charged him with third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) (N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1)), second-degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute (N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(b)(2)), and third-degree possession of CDS with intent to distribute within a school zone (N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5, -7).

Slater moved to suppress the evidence and argued that the warrantless search of the motel room was unlawful. After hearing testimony from Officers Fawcett and Kahn at a suppression hearing on September 3, 2004, the trial court denied Slater's motion. The court found that the officers' entry into the motel room was consensual, and that while in the room the officers inadvertently observed contraband in plain view.

Slater and the State reached a plea agreement afterward. Under the agreement, Slater was to plead guilty to second-degree possession with intent to distribute. In exchange, the State agreed to dismiss the remaining two counts and recommend a five-year prison sentence.

Slater pleaded guilty on December 31, 2004. Consistent with Rule 3:9-2, he acknowledged on the record, among other things, that he understood the terms of the plea agreement; waived his right to a trial; had not been forced or threatened to enter the plea; had not been promised anything else regarding the agreement; and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Slater then provided a factual basis for the plea and admitted that at the time of his arrest, he was in possession of cocaine and was "going to ...


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