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Washington State Supreme Court Allows Withdrawal of Juvenile's Guilty Plea to Sex Offense

On January 28, 2010, the Supreme Court of Washington State issued an opinion allowing a juvenile to withdraw a guilty plea to a sex offense due to ineffective assistance of appointed counsel and misunderstanding the charge.

When A.N.J. was 12, he pleaded guilty to first degree child molestation. Prior to the guilty plea, the court appointed him an attorney who met with him and his parents a total of less than an hour before the plea was entered. The attorney misinformed A.N.J. and his parents, telling them that the SPX offense would be removed from his record when he was 18 or 21. The appointed attorney never hired an investigator or expert because, under the terms of his contract to provide juvenile appointed counsel, he would have had to pay for the expert or investigator out of his own pocket. The attorney never contacted A.N.J.'s witnesses. His annual-fixed-rate contract rewarded his plea bargaining clients.

As soon as he discovered that he had been misinformed, A.N.J. filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, which the trial court denied. A.N.J. appealed to the Supreme Court of Washington State.

The en banc Supreme Court held that the appointed attorney's contract "effectively placed a bounty for every guilty plea delivered by assigned defense counsel to the county prosecutor. This is a dysfunctional system." A contract that requires the appointed attorney to pay investigative, expert and conflict counsel fees out of the defender's fee may be considered evidence of ineffectiveness of counsel. This coupled with appointed counsel's misinforming A.N.J. and his parents that the sex offense and requirement to register as a sex offender would be removed from his record constituted ineffective assistance of counsel by misinforming A.N.J. of the consequences of his guilty plea. The insufficient amount of time the attorney spent with A.N.J. also showed ineffective assistance of counsel. The ineffective assistance of counsel would result in a manifest injustice if A.N.J. were not allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

There was also evidence that A.N.J. did not understand that incidental contact with another child's genitals during play, without the purpose of gratifying sexual desire, does not meet the definition of the offense he pleaded guilty to. Neither his attorney nor the trial court explained the requirement that the contact be with the intent to gratify sexual desire to him. This also justified allowing A.N.J. to withdraw his guilty plea.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded the case to that court with directions to allow A.N.J. to withdraw his guilty plea. See: State v. ANJ, 225 P.3d 956 (2010)

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Related legal case

State v. ANJ