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Court News Ohio

Trial Court Abused Discretion When Rejecting No-Contest Plea

A Stark County trial judge wrongly refused to allow a criminal defendant to pleadno contest” because the judge did not believe there were any  legitimate grounds for an appeal, the Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court found the Stark County Common Pleas Court abused its discretion when it rejected Davis Hill’s request to plead no contest to drug-related charges. A plea of no contest would have allowed Hill to appeal the trial court’s denial of his motions to suppress the evidence the prosecution used against him. The trial court found that its rulings on the motions were proper.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated it is the role of an appeals court, not the trial court, to determine whether the trial judge properly ruled on Davis’ pretrial motions.

“Trial courts cannot avoid appellate review of their decisions by deciding themselves that their rulings were correct: this type of ‘appellate’ review by a trial court is an abuse of discretion,” Justice Fischer wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that a trial court may not arbitrarily refuse to accept a no-contest plea in a criminal case. But Hill agreed to plead guilty as part of a plea deal with the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office. Justice DeWine explained that plea agreements are “contracts between the state and the defendant,” and noted that the state “is free to condition an offer with respect to the charges or sentence on a defendant’s entering a plea of guilty rather than no contest.”

In this case, “Hill pleaded guilty because that was a condition of his negotiated plea agreement, not because the judge unreasonably and arbitrarily denied his request to plead no contest,” Justice DeWine concluded.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined Justice DeWine’s dissent.

Judge Skeptical of No-Contest Plea
Hill was indicted in 2019 on five drug-related counts, with major drug offender specifications attached to four of the counts. Hill pleaded not guilty to all charges and filed two motions to suppress the evidence. The trial court denied both motions.

At the suppression hearings, the trial court requested that the prosecutor place its sentencing recommendation on the record , and the office replied that it proposed Hill spend 16 to 21.5 years in prison for the offenses.

The judge told Hill and his attorney that the court only accepts no-contest pleas in rare circumstances when the judge believes there are legitimate issues to raise on appeal.

“In this particular case I feel confident in the court’s rulings on the various motions to suppress and issues that have been raised prior to the trial in this matter, and for that reason I would not be inclined to accept a no-contest plea in this particular case,” the judge stated.

The judge offered Hill the right to object to the decision and move forward with a trial. Hill decided to plead guilty, and the court imposed the recommended prison sentence. And the prosecutor’s office waived its right to collect mandatory fines.

Hill appealed his conviction to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Hill appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case.

Supreme Court Reviewed Trial Court’s Handling of Pleas
Justice Fischer explained there are two key differences between pleading no contest and pleading guilty. A criminal defendant can raise more issues on appeal by pleading no contest instead of guilty.

Also, those who plead no contest avoid the possibility that a guilty plea will be used against them in future civil lawsuits, he noted. A guilty plea is a “complete admission” of guilt. A no-contest plea is instead “an admission of the truth of the facts alleged” and cannot “be used against the defendant in any subsequent civil or criminal proceeding,” Justice Fischer explained.

A no-contest plea can only be made with the consent of the court. The opinion stated that when a trial judge refuses a no-contest plea, an appeals court determines if the decision was “unreasonable, arbitrary, or unconscionable.”

Hill maintained that the trial judge had a blanket policy not to accept no-contest pleas and that policy violated the Supreme Court ruling in its 2018 State v. Beasley decision. Hill noted the judge stated that on rare occasions a no-contest plea would be accepted but argued that was “effectively a blanket policy” of refusing to accept the pleas.

The Stark County prosecutor replied that the trial court has the right to use its discretion to deny the plea, and that Hill did not explain to the trial court why he wanted to plead no contest. The opinion stated there is nothing in the record indicating why Hill thought a no-contest plea was warranted.

The Supreme Court found that the trial court did not have a blanket policy and the trial court’s decision was not in conflict with Beasley. However, the opinion stated that the trial court abused its discretion in handling Hill’s request.

The trial judge stated that law enforcement “very appropriately” handled its interaction with Hill and the court was very confident on its rulings on the various motions to suppress and other issues raised before Hill’s trial.

“When the trial court rejected Hill’s no-contest plea because it did not believe there were any legitimate issues for appeal, the trial court effectively usurped the role of the court of appeals,” today’s decision stated.

The opinion stated the trial court’s policy puts “itself in the position of the court of appeals to review its own prior decisions.” A “fundamental aspect” of allowing appeals is that an appellate court provides an independent review of proceedings and is not involved in the proceedings prior to the appeal.

“As a result, to the extent that a trial court’s policy allows a trial court to review the correctness of its own decisions, that policy is unreasonable,” the Court concluded.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court to allow Hill to enter a new plea.

2021-0913. State v. Hill, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-4544.

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