June 12, 2015 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that amending a judgment of conviction for driving with a prohibited alcohol concentration (PAC) or forcing a plea withdrawal would violate defendant Andrew Chamblis’s constitutional right to due process of law.
Chamblis pleaded guilty to a sixth offense PAC knowing it was a Class H felony with a maximum penalty of six years imprisonment (three years in prison, three years extended supervision). The judge ultimately sentenced him to two years in prison and two years of extended supervision, a four-year sentence. The state appealed.
The state argued that the circuit court wrongly excluded additional evidence that would have allowed the state to pursue a seventh offense PAC, a Class G felony with an increased range of penalties. The court ruled the additional evidence was untimely.
But a court of appeals ruled that the circuit court excluded the evidence in error. It reversed and remanded the case, directing the circuit court to amend the judgment of conviction and impose a sentence corresponding to a seventh offense PAC.
This time, Chamblis appealed. He argued that forcing him to withdraw his plea or directing an amended judgment with harsher penalties would violate his due process rights. In State v. Chamblis, 2015 WI 53 (June 12, 2015), the supreme court agreed.
“Chamblis entered a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary guilty plea to operating with a PAC as a sixth offense, not as a seventh offense,” wrote Justice Patrick Crooks, noting the remedy “renders Chamblis’s plea unknowing, unintelligent, and involuntary.”
“We further conclude that a remedy which requires Chamblis to withdraw his guilty plea is fundamentally unfair and thus violative of due process under the facts of this case.”
In 2011, the state charged Chamblis for sixth offense operating a vehicle while intoxicated and sixth offense PAC based on five prior drunk driving convictions in Minnesota. About a year later, the state moved to amend the complaint when it discovered that Chamblis also had two drunk driving-related convictions in Illinois.
The circuit court ruled that the evidence supporting the additional convictions, a driver’s abstract, was insufficient to establish that Chamblis had two prior convictions there. But the judge indicated that the state could still offer more proof before sentencing.
When the prosecutor offered more evidence of the Illinois convictions at Chamblis’s plea hearing, the judge said it was “too late” – the prosecution should have obtained that additional evidence sooner and it would be unfair to delay the plea hearing now.
After hearing the minimum and maximum penalties associated with a sixth offense PAC, Chamblis entered the guilty plea.
The appeals court ruled that it would not violate Chamblis’s due process rights to reverse the conviction and impose a different sentence in correlation to a seventh offense PAC, even though Chamblis entered the plea with a sixth offense in mind.
No Plea Withdrawal
On appeal to the supreme court, Chamblis argued that defendants must know the possible penalty they face before entering a guilty plea. The state argued that courts can advise defendants on the range of penalties that could apply at sentencing.
That is, the state argued that it could still bring forth definitive evidence on prior convictions after Chamblis entered the guilty plea but before sentencing, so allowing an increased penalty post-plea was a possibility Chamblis knew about when he pled guilty.
The supreme court recognized that it’s “better practice” for courts to determine the number of prior convictions before accepting a plea, and nothing prevents the court from doing so in order to ensure the defendant’s plea is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.
In this case, the court noted, “the circuit court correctly recognized the need to determine the number of prior convictions before accepting Chamblis’s guilty plea.”
However, the supreme court “assumed without deciding” that the circuit court erred in not allowing the prosecutor to bring forth additional evidence at the plea hearing.
Although the circuit court had, only days earlier, indicated that more evidence could be received, it also noted the prosecutor had months to bring that evidence forward.
Despite the assumed error, the supreme court ruled that it would violate Chamblis’s due process rights to change the sentence, based on the additional evidence.
“The record clearly establishes that Chamblis entered a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary guilty plea to the charge of operating with a PAC as a sixth offense, not as a seventh offense,” Justice Crooks wrote.
It rejected the claim that Chamblis knew the penalties associated with a seventh offense, because his defense counsel stated those penalties on the record.
“[T]hese statements occurred prior to the circuit court’s explicit determination that it would accept a plea only to the lower charge of a sixth offense,” Crooks noted.
Finally, the supreme court rejected the state’s argument that if the sentence cannot be changed, the proper remedy would be to require Chamblis to withdraw his plea.
“That procedure is not implicated in the instant action because Chamblis neither filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea nor appealed his conviction,” Justice Crooks wrote.
Justice Annette Ziegler wrote concurring opinion. She concluded that the circuit court did not commit an error by excluding the state’s evidence on prior convictions because it had the discretion to make that ruling. The majority assumed error without deciding.
“A contrary conclusion not only raises concern regarding fairness and the ability of a defendant to knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily plead but also, it neuters the court’s ability to control the docket and calendar,” Justice Ziegler wrote.