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Oregon Court's No Plea Policy is Abuse of Discretion

The Oregon Court of Appeals held that rejecting guilty pleas that reduce misdemeanors to violations solely on the basis of a policy of refusing to allow defendants who are charged with misdemeanors to plead guilty to violations was an abuse of discretion.

Jaden Nora Justice stole $26.51 worth of merchandise from an Oregon Walmart store. When security confronted her, Justice admitted to the theft and returned the property. Police described her as "very remorseful."

Justice was charged with Theft in the Third Degree, which is a Class C misdemeanor.

The State offered to allow her to plead guilty to the lesser-included offense of Attempted Theft in the Third Degree, which is a violation.

"We're not doing that over here," the Judge declared. "We're not taking pleas to violations in this Court."

The court had apparently adopted a no-plea policy for violations long ago. "So, she either pleads guilty as charged, or we go to trial, or you dismiss it," the Judge declared. The prosecutor refused to dismiss the charge.

"Does she have a record?" the Judge asked. "None at all," defense counsel replied. "None, whatsoever."

"Well, I've been generally fining people," said the Judge. "That's generally what I've done in these cases. But, we're not taking violations over here."

The prosecutor half-heartedly attempted to persuade the court to accept the plea, but the judge refused. "I never said I'd take a violation anyway. And that was probably pretty clear because we've never done violations over here. So, I'm not taking it," the judge insisted. "So she can either plead guilty to the theft, or you can dismiss it, or we set a trial date."

Defense counsel requested a trial date then filed a motion asking the court to allow Justice to plead guilty to the violation. Counsel requested a hearing and oral argument, but the court denied the motion without written comment.

A month later, defense counsel raised the plea issue again at a hearing before a different judge. "I'm assuming that the Court is not going to revisit the previous ruling made without a hearing," said defense counsel.

"No. I'm not - I mean, we don't allow negotiations from criminal charges to violations," the new judge repeated. "Haven't for years. And I don't intend to entertain such a motion. . . . As a matter of policy, we have never done that. . . . And we aren't going (to) start." The court then found Justice guilty of the misdemeanor.

The Court of Appeals reversed. Noting that the trial court's discretion to accept or reject a plea resulting from a plea agreement derives from ORS 135.432, the court interpreted the statute to determine whether refusing the plea was an abuse of discretion.

"The trial court abused its discretion by rejecting defendant's proffered guilty plea based solely on the court's policy of not permitting defendants charged with misdemeanors to plead guilty to violations," the court concluded.

Finding that ORS 135.432(4) requires the court to give "due consideration" to the particular plea before deciding to accept or reject it, the court held that "because the court did not do that in this case, but instead rejected defendant's plea based solely on the court's policy of not permitting defendants charged with misdemeanors to plead guilty to violations, the court failed to properly exercise its discretion." See: State v. Justice, 273 Or App 457, _ P.3d _ (2015). 

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Related legal case

State v. Justice