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Failure to Advise Defendant of Ineligibility for Early Release Credits Renders Guilty Plea Invalid

A trial court’s failure to advise a defendant of his or her ineligibility for early release credits renders a guilty plea unknowing and involuntary, the Division Three Court of Appeals for the State of Washington held in an unpublished ruling.

Michael Duke Coombes pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Under Washington law, defendants convicted of first-degree murder must serve a mandatory minimum of 20 years before becoming eligible for earned release credits. RCW 9.94A.540(1)(a).

Coombes was not advised of this restriction prior to entering his guilty plea, and did not realize that he was ineligible for early release credits until he began serving his 300-month sentence. In fact, his judgment and sentencing orders left blank a section regarding the mandatory minimum, and a similar provision was struck from the plea agreement. Coombes subsequently filed a personal restraint petition seeking to withdraw the guilty plea.

Recognizing that “a defendant must be informed of all direct consequences of a guilty plea,” the Court of Appeals granted Coombes’ personal restraint petition and remanded the case to allow him to withdraw the plea.

“A recognized direct consequence of a guilty plea is the statutory prohibition against earned release credit during the period of the mandatory minimum sentence,” the appellate court wrote. As Coombes was not advised of the restriction on earned release credits, his guilty plea was unintelligent, involuntary and invalid, the Court of Appeals held.

The state argued that the trial court’s failure to advise Coombes of the statutory restriction on earned release credits was not material or prejudicial. The appellate court, however, rejected that argument based on materiality.

“A reviewing court cannot determine how a defendant arrived at his personal decision to plead guilty, nor discern what weight a defendant gave to each factor relating to that decision,” the Court of Appeals wrote. See: In re Coombes, 159 Wash.App. 1044 (Wash.App. Div.3, 2011); 2011 WL 240687.

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Related legal case

In re Coombes