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State v. Yancey

Supreme Court of New Mexico

October 7, 2019

STATE OF NEW MEXICO Plaintiff-Petitioner,
MILLARD DOYLE YANCEY Defendant-Respondent.

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDING ON CERTIORARI Mark Terrence Sanchez, District Judge.

          Hector 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



         {¶1} 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {¶2} 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.

         {¶3} 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.

         {¶4}Yancey 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 declining health.

         {¶5} 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]."

         {¶6} The district court denied Yancey's post-sentencing motions and left the sentences intact. Yancey appealed.

         {¶7} 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. ¶ 16.

         {¶8} 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.

         {¶9} The State filed a petition for writ of certiorari which we granted. Our ...

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