July 2, 2012 – Lee Cain, charged with growing between five and 20 marijuana plants in his home, admitted to growing four at his plea hearing. He said five at his sentencing hearing.
In a post-conviction motion for relief, Cain wanted to withdraw his no contest plea, arguing that he did not admit elements of the charged offense at the time of his plea, and thus it would be a manifest injustice to uphold the plea as knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.
However, a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority disagreed in State v. Cain, 2012 WI 68 (June 28, 2012), noting that courts can review the entire record to decide whether a plea should be withdrawn.
“In a word, it would simply not make sense to vacate a conviction as the result of an error at a plea hearing when later proceedings unambiguously demonstrate that the error did not give rise to a manifest injustice and that the plea was valid,” wrote Justice Michael Gableman.
The court recognized that defendants who move to withdraw pleas after sentencing must show a manifest injustice will occur if the plea is not withdrawn.
A manifest injustice can occur if the defendant does not ratify the plea, that is, waive the elements of the crime that the state would be required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Cain says he only admitted to growing four plants at the plea colloquy, so he did not ratify the no contest plea to the charged offense, manufacturing more than four plants containing THC.
But the supreme court clarified that courts can review the entire record, not just the record from a plea colloquy, to determine whether a plea was ratified.
“This is so because while the plea may have been invalid at the time it was entered, it may be inappropriate, in light of later events, to allow withdrawal of the plea,” Justice Gableman wrote.
The majority explained that Cain admitted to growing five plants at the sentencing hearing, and Cain’s attorney argued that Cain should receive a light sentence, “even with the 16 plants.”
“Cain’s statements and actions, when viewed in the totality of the circumstances, demonstrate that he personally entered and ratified his plea of no contest,” Justice Gableman explained.
Chief Justice Abrahamson wrote a concurring opinion, concluding that Cain entered a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent plea – based on the plea transcript – and the majority’s decision to recast the defendant’s argument based on ratification was “puzzling.”
“Beyond my concern that the majority improperly recasts the defendant’s argument as something that it is not, I question why the majority feels the need to recast the defendant’s argument at all,” she wrote. “As far as I can tell, the outcome of this review does not hinge on the majority’s reconstruction of the defendant’s argument.”
Assistant State Public Defender Faun Moses represented Lee Cain. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Balistreri represented the state.
Joe Forward is the Legal Writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.