Claims That Survive an Unconditional Guilty Plea

A lot of defendants plead guilty. And many of those defendants later try to challenge their pleas through the post-conviction process. Not surprisingly then, I get a lot of questions about what types of claims can be asserted in a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) challenging an unconditional guilty plea.

As a general rule, a defendant who voluntarily and intelligently enters an unconditional guilty plea waives all defects in the proceeding, including constitutional defects that occurred before entry of the plea. See State v. Reynolds, 298 N.C. 380, 395 (1979). Thus, for example, once a defendant enters an unconditional guilty plea, he or she is barred from challenging the constitutionality of the stop that lead to his or her arrest. There are however several exceptions to this general rule.

First, a defendant who enters an unconditional guilty plea isn’t barred from challenging “the very power of the State to bring the defendant into court to answer the charge brought against him.” Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21, 30 (1974); Reynolds, 298 N.C. at 395 (discussing Perry). Thus, a defendant who has pleaded guilty still can assert a jurisdictional defect, such as a fatal defect in the indictment or that no part of the crime occurred in North Carolina. See, e.g., State v. Neville, 108 N.C. App. 330, 333 (1992) (guilty plea does not waive a jurisdictional defect) (citing State v. Stokes, 274 N.C. 409, 412 (1968). See generally G.S. 15A-1415(b)(2) (MAR may assert jurisdictional issues).

Second, a defendant who enters an unconditional guilty plea isn’t barred from a claim that the plea itself wasn’t knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. A plea waives a wheelbarrow full of constitutional rights, including the right to a trial by jury and the right to confront witnesses. Waivers of constitutional rights must be knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. If a plea isn’t knowing, voluntary, and intelligent, it isn’t valid. Thus, a defendant who enters an unconditional guilty plea isn’t barred from claiming, for example, that the trial judge failed to inform him or her of the maximum punishment or that defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance in connection with the plea. See generally G.S. 15A-1415(b)(3) (MAR may assert claim that conviction was obtained in violation of constitutional law). Challenges to the knowing, voluntary, and intelligent nature of the plea are commonly known as Boykin challenges. See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969) (articulating the constitutional requirements of a plea).

And finally, a defendant who enters an unconditional guilty plea isn’t barred from challenging the legality of the sentence imposed. For example, if a trial judge imposes a sentence after an unconditional guilty plea using the wrong Structured Sentencing Act grid, the defendant isn’t barred from challenging the sentence by way of a MAR. See generally, G.S. 15A-1444(a2) (defendants who plead guilty have an appeal as a matter of right with respect to listed sentencing issues); G.S. 15A-1415(b)(8) (MAR may challenge sentence imposed).

I’m not aware of any other MAR claims that survive an unconditional guilty plea. If you are, please post a comment.