Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court held that a defendant has a right to enter a “conditional plea.” A conditional plea allows a defendant to plead guilty but preserves the defendant’s right to appeal some of the trial court’s rulings on legal issues. If the defendant wins the appeal, the plea becomes unenforceable; it is essentially void. For defendants who have legal defenses to charges – like, for example, a motion to suppress, or a challenge to the government’s interpretation of the reach of a particular criminal provision – a conditional plea is often the only meaningful way for defendants to challenge a lower court’s ruling.
Until this month, lower courts had held that Massachusetts did not allow for conditional pleas: A defendant could either plead guilty and the case would close, or she could proceed to trial and assert those legal defenses, but risk being convicted and sentenced to a potentially lengthy prison sentence. But in Commonwealth v. Gomez, the state’s high court held otherwise. There, police allegedly found a gun and drugs in the defendant’s pockets when they frisked him. He was charged with illegal possession of that gun and those drugs. The defendant had a strong argument that the search (i.e. the pat down) was unconstitutional. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence against him but lost. At that point, he had little means to raise a defense to the charged facts at trial because, after all, the police found him with the items the prosecutor charged him with possessing. But he also believed that the trial court had it wrong – the evidence should have been suppressed. A conditional plea would have allowed him to spare everyone the expense of a trial, but still preserve his right to have appeals court review his core defense to the criminal charges.
In Gomez, the Supreme Judicial Court held that he should have had that opportunity. It did so relying not on the text of any rule, but rather on practical considerations. The Court explained that the majority of other states and the District of Columbia all allow conditional pleas. To hold otherwise would put Massachusetts out of step with other jurisdictions. It also reasoned that conditional pleas save the court and public time and money by avoiding pointless trials. Finally, it explained that conditional pleas facilitate plea bargaining by giving the defendant and Commonwealth one more way to narrow and resolve their dispute.
The Court set two limits on a conditional plea: First, the prosecutor and court must consent to the conditional plea. Second, the defendant must identify the specific ruling from which he or she would like to appeal. Beyond that, the Court did not mandate any other requirements for a conditional plea. Rather, it asked the Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure to come up with additional procedure and requirements for these kinds of pleas. In the interim, the Court advised that judges should follow the rules used by federal courts under Rule 11(a)(2). That rule requires that parties memorialize in writing a defendant’s right to appeal, and that the plea can be “withdrawn” if the defendant wins before the reviewing court.
The Court added one last wrinkle to its new rule on conditional pleas. It held that trial courts retain the “discretion” to require that the motion from which the defendant seeks to appeal be “dispositive.” In this context, “dispositive” means any motion that would settle the issues in the criminal case. In other words, a trial court still has the power to limit conditional pleas only to those cases where the contested motion concerned a complete legal defense to the charged crime. Thus, that part of the Court’s ruling in Gomez preserves some latitude for trial courts to force a defendant to either take an unconditional plea deal or go to trial if the court believes that the outcome of the case rests on factual issues that can be resolved at trial.
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