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State v. Crowe – Case Brief Summary (Tennessee)

In State v. Crowe, 168 S.W.3d 731 (Tenn. 2005), the defendant pleaded nolo contendere to facilitation of first-degree murder.

At the plea hearing, the court did not discuss with the defendant the nature and elements of the crime; defense counsel also did not do so and did not advise on the record that he previously had done so.

The indictment had charged the defendant with murder, not facilitation.

In a hearing on his motion to withdraw guilty plea, the defendant testified that he always had taken the position with his lawyer that he merely was present at the scene of the murder, and had not participated or assisted in any way.

In holding that the nolo contendere plea was not entered into with knowledge of the nature and elements of the crime of facilitation, the court offered a thorough analysis of the effect of Bradshaw on the Henderson presumption:

The United States Supreme Court has recently again emphasized that a trial judge need not personally "explain the elements of each charge to the defendant on the record" so long as "the record accurately reflects that the nature of the charge and the elements of the crime were explained to the defendant by his own, competent counsel." See Bradshaw, 545 U.S. at 183. We also agree that a reviewing court may be able to determine that a defendant gained from other sources an adequate understanding of the offense and notice of the nature of the charge to which he or she is entering a plea, even if a trial court fails to comply with Rule 11(c)(1). For example, the defendant may be informed of the nature of the offense by the allegations of the indictment. See, e.g., Henderson, 426 U.S. at 649 n.2 (White, J. concurring) ("In those cases in which the indictment is read to the defendant by the court at arraignment or at the time of his plea, his plea of guilty may well be deemed a factual admission that he did what he is charged with doing so that a judgment of conviction may validly be entered against him."); Bryan v. State, 848 S.W.2d 72, 76 (Tenn. Crim. App. 1992) (rejecting the defendant's claim that he had not understood the nature of the offenses to which he had pleaded guilty and noting that the elements of the offenses had been alleged in the indictment). Another source from which a defendant may gain an understanding of the nature of the offense is the prosecution's summation at the plea submission hearing of the facts relevant to the elements of the plea offense. See e.g., State v. Johnson, 253 Conn. 1, 751 A.2d 298, 322 (2000) (citing cases).

Furthermore, in some cases the reviewing court may be able to determine that the offense or the relevant element of the offense is a self-explanatory legal term, so simple in meaning that a layperson can be expected to understand it. See, e.g., Easter v. Norris, 100 F.3d 523, 526 (8th Cir. 1996) (holding that terms "enter" and "intent" in context of burglary did not require further explanation at taking of guilty plea); United States v. Wetterlin, 583 F.2d 346, 350 (7th Cir. 1978) (stating that charge of "conspiracy" is not a self-explanatory legal term so simple in meaning that it can be expected or assumed that a layperson understands it); Waits v. People, 724 P.2d 1329, 1334-35 (Colo. 1986) (holding that district court was not required to define terms "intent," "specific intent," and "theft" for crime of burglary); State v. Mayer, 139 Idaho 643, 84 P.3d 579, 584 (Idaho Ct. App. 2004) (stating that, "with respect to the element of penetration, the layperson's meaning of 'rape' corresponds with the legal definition set out in the statute"); State v. Young, 646 So. 2d 445, 447 (La. Ct. App. 1994) (rejecting the defendant's claim that his plea was involuntary and noting that "DWI, fourth offense" is a "crime in which the title conveys its elements"); see generally 5 Wayne R. LaFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, § 21.4(c) (2d ed. 1999 & 2005 Supp.). Finally, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, in many cases it will be possible for a reviewing court to determine that the defense lawyer advised the defendant about the nature of the plea offense, even when the trial court fails to do so. Bradshaw, 545 U.S. at 183 ("Where a defendant is represented by competent counsel, the court usually may rely on that counsel's assurance that the defendant has been properly informed of the nature and elements of the charge to which he is pleading guilty."); Henderson, 426 U.S. at 647. In this case, the record does not reflect that the defendant gained an understanding of the nature of the plea offense from either the trial judge, or defense counsel, or any other source. (168 S.W.3d at 750-51.)