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Brown v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

May 2, 2019





         Tamara Brown appeals from the refusal of the circuit court to set aside her guilty plea. For the reasons noted below, we conclude that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying Brown's motion. Thus, for the reasons explained below, the judgment of the Court of Appeals will be affirmed.


         The Commonwealth proffered the following evidence at Brown's guilty plea. On May 12, 2016, Brown entered a Wal-Mart store after having been previously banned from the store. A loss prevention officer observed her leaving the store without paying for items she had placed in her bags. When the loss prevention officer confronted Brown, she asked if he was going to press charges. She then left the items behind, ran to a vehicle, and fled.

         Charged with trespass and the felony of petit larceny, third offense, Brown negotiated a plea agreement. On January 30, 2017, pursuant to that agreement, she entered a plea of guilty to trespass and the lesser included misdemeanor offense of petit larceny, second offense. From the bench, the court pronounced a sentence in conformity with the plea agreement: twelve months in jail, with eleven months suspended for the petit larceny charge and twelve months, all suspended, for the trespass charge.

         On February 1, 2017, before the circuit court entered the final sentencing order, Brown filed a motion to withdraw her guilty plea to the petit larceny conviction. Counsel explained at a hearing on the motion that Brown regretted pleading guilty, and stated that "she thinks she has some evidence now" that could be "present[ed] to the court to assist in her defense." Brown testified that she "just took the plea to try to avoid the felony" but she did not know that pleading guilty "would make [her] lose [her] house and [her] job." Brown worked in the school system and she learned she might lose her job as a consequence of her conviction. She also stated that she had "evidence to fight against this case" and that she was not guilty. Specifically, she stated that she had "evidence to prove that the merchandise was left in the store and [she] had [her] money returned back to [her], and all of that." The circuit court denied the motion and entered the final sentencing order. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment in an unpublished opinion.[1] The defendant appeals.


         I. The "manifest injustice" standard governs a motion to withdraw a guilty plea made after sentence was pronounced but before the order was entered.

         Under Virginia law, motions to withdraw a guilty plea are governed by two separate standards. The timing of the motion to withdraw determines which standard a court will apply to review the motion. A long line of cases, beginning with Parris v. Commonwealth, 189 Va. 321 (1949), have refined the standard that governs pre-sentencing motions to withdraw a guilty plea. Under the more forgiving pre-sentencing standard, a motion to withdraw should be granted if the guilty plea was "made involuntarily" or "entered inadvisedly, if any reasonable ground is offered for going to the jury." Id. at 325. Whether the guilty plea was voluntary and counseled are thus central considerations. "[A] defendant who moves to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing need only show that [1] his motion was made in good faith and [2] premised upon a reasonable basis." Velazquez v. Commonwealth, 292 Va. 603, 616 (2016). A reasonable basis must include a proffer of evidence showing a reasonable basis for contesting guilt." Cobbins v. Commonwealth, 53 Va.App. 28, 34 (2008) (citing Justus v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 143, 155-56 (2007)). "The first requirement protects the integrity of the judicial process by precluding defendants from using a guilty plea as a subterfuge to manipulate the court. The second requirement defeats motions to withdraw which would result in an essentially futile trial." Id.

         For example, where "it appears from the surrounding circumstances that the plea of guilty was submitted in good faith under an honest mistake of material fact or facts, or if it was induced by fraud, coercion or undue influence and would not otherwise have been made" a trial court should permit it to be withdrawn. Parris, 189 Va. at 324-25. In addition, courts should consider what prejudice withdrawing the plea might cause to the Commonwealth. Pritchett v. Commonwealth, 61 Va.App. 777, 787 (2013). Trial courts possess "sound discretion" to determine whether to allow a defendant to withdraw a pre-sentencing guilty plea, and the exercise of that discretion will of course turn on "the facts and circumstances of each case." Parris, 189 Va. at 324.

         A motion to withdraw a guilty plea made after sentencing is governed by the "manifest injustice" standard. The manifest injustice standard comes from Code § 19.2-296. That statute provides as follows:

[a] motion to withdraw a plea of guilty or nolo contendere may be made only before sentence is imposed or imposition of a sentence is suspended; but to correct manifest injustice, the court within twenty-one days after entry of a final order may set aside the judgment of conviction and permit the defendant to withdraw his plea.

         Manifest injustice is a "more severe standard" and it applies post-sentencing "to avoid motions for withdrawal based on disappointment in the terms of the sentence . . . ." Lilly v. Commonwealth, 218 Va. 960, 965 (1978) (internal citation omitted). A manifest injustice "amounts to an obvious miscarriage of justice" or "[a] direct, obvious, and observable error in a ...

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