ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Mark Terrence Sanchez,
H. Balderas, Attorney General Elizabeth Ann Ashton, Assistant
Attorney General Charles J. Gutierrez, Assistant Attorney
General Santa Fe, NM for Petitioner
Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Allison H. Jaramillo,
Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Respondent
K. NAKAMURA, CHIEF JUSTICE.
If a criminal defendant does not expressly state on the
record "I plead guilty," is the guilty plea
enforceable? The Court of Appeals concluded that, where these
words are not spoken, the plea is not enforceable no matter
the circumstances of the plea proceeding, the overall context
of the plea colloquy, or the clarity with which a defendant
otherwise manifests an intent to plead guilty. See State
v. Yancey, 2017-NMCA-090, ¶¶ 1, 16, 37, 406
P.3d 1050. This is incorrect. Whether a plea is knowing and
voluntary must be assessed from the totality of the
circumstances. See United States v. Rollings, 751
F.3d 1183, 1188 (10th Cir. 2014); accord Garcia v.
State, 2010-NMSC-023, ¶ 50, 148 N.M. 414, 237 P.3d
716. No magic words are either required or adequate to
resolve that inquiry. We reverse and remand.
Defendant, Millard Yancey, was charged in several related
cases with fraud, embezzlement, and racketeering. Upon advice
of counsel, he entered into three plea and disposition
agreements. The terms of the pleas were recorded upon the
standardized plea-agreement forms approved by this Court.
Form 9-408 NMRA.
Following Yancey's participation in a plea colloquy at a
change of plea hearing, the district court accepted and
recorded Yancey's guilty pleas. The pleas entered
indicated that no agreement as to sentencing had been reached
and identified only what the maximum possible sentence could
be. A sentencing hearing was conducted a few weeks later, and
Yancey was sentenced in the cases to a total term of
twenty-one years of incarceration. A judgment and sentence
was entered in each case.
filed two post-sentencing motions. One of the motions sought
withdrawal of the guilty pleas as involuntarily and
unknowingly made. In support of this motion, Yancey argued
that he entered into the plea agreements with the
"understanding that the most time he could receive . . .
would be twelve (12) years[.]" The other motion sought
reconsideration of the sentence imposed. As to this motion,
Yancey emphasized that he was seventy-one years old and in
At the hearing on these motions, Yancey acknowledged under
oath that he did previously: admit that there was a factual
basis for the pleas; receive information about his total
exposure to incarceration if he pleaded guilty; and enter
into the guilty pleas in open court. Despite these
concessions, Yancey nevertheless emphasized that he "did
not fully understand the elements of the charges that were
being made against [him]."
The district court denied Yancey's post-sentencing
motions and left the sentences intact. Yancey appealed.
The Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, reversed and
ordered the district court to vacate the sentences.
Yancey, 2017-NMCA-090, ¶ 38. The majority
declined to address the arguments Yancey raised in support of
his position that the district court erred in declining to
allow him to withdraw his plea. Id. ¶¶
15-16. Rather, the majority focused its attention on an issue
Yancey did not raise and which the majority characterized as
"more fundamental and serious." Id. ¶
According to the majority, "a glaring omission" had
occurred: Yancey "never was asked to, nor did he ever,
expressly plead guilty in open court to any crime on the
record." Id. In other words, he never said
"I plead guilty," or some similar words expressly
acknowledging his guilt. This purported defect, the majority
held, was dispositive. Id. It rendered Yancey's
guilty pleas constitutionally invalid because, according to
the majority, it is "a constitutional requirement that
[a] defendant must actually admit he is guilty in open court
on the record . . . ." Id. ¶ 23. This is
necessary, they explained, because a plea "entails a
decision of whether to exercise or waive basic constitutional
trial rights." Id.
The State filed a petition for writ of certiorari which we
granted. Our ...