State v. Prindle, 2013 MT 173 (July 2, 2013) (5-0) (Rice. J.)
Issue: Whether the district court erred in denying Prindle’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea as involuntarily entered.
Short Answer: No.
Facts: On May 1, 2008, Prindle was driving a Honda SUV with two passengers, Grant and Coe, when he pulled out in front of James Archer, the driver and sole occupant of a Buick sedan. Archer had the right of way. The front of Archer’s car struck the side of Prindle’s SUV. All four persons were injured. Archer’s injuries required a number of surgeries, and he lost physical and mental abilities. Grant suffered several injuries including facial scarring and Coe sustained a traumatic head injury.
The investigation by Highway Patrolman Brian Sampson pointed to marijuana use by Prindle as a contributing cause to the collision. The state charged Prindle with three counts of negligent vehicular assault, criminal endangerment, and one count of driving while suspended. Prindle’s public defender investigated the case, talked to Prindle on the phone, and met with him in person. Prindle repeatedly said he was interested in pleading guilty if he could received a suspended or deferred sentence rather than face prison time upon conviction. Prindle did not remember what happened that night. Grant said she and Prindle met after school, picked Prindle;s mother up from work and dropped her off at home, then picked up some marijuana and smoked before heading to Coe’s house. The accident occurred shortly after leaving Coe’s house. Grant said she did not think Prindle was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident. Prindle’s mother said he did not appear under the influence when he picked her up at 5 p.m.
Prindle’s PD found an article by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying that marijuana impairs drivers for 3-5 hours. Claus explained that the state’s case was not strong, but that a jury could convict on Grant’s testimony of his marijuana use a few hours before the accident. The state and Prindle agreed that Prindle would plead guilty to one count of negligent vehicular assault and driving while suspended, and the state would dismiss the other charges and recommend a six-year deferred sentence.
Prindle moved to Oregon in 2010 to pursue a career in snowboarding. He appeared for a change-of-plea hearing and returned to Oregon. In January 2011 Prindle returned to Montana for his sentencing hearing. The court sentenced Prindle in accordance with his plea agreement. Prindle expected to immediately return to Oregon, but was informed by his probation officer that protocol required Prindle to serve 90 days on supervision without issues before he could leave Montana.
Procedural Posture & Holding: Prindle moved to withdraw his plea asserting it was involuntary because of Claus’s ineffective assistance, and because Claus told him that he would be allowed to return to Oregon immediately if he pled guilty. The district court held a hearing, and entered findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order denying Prindle’s motion on the basis that Prindle’s plea was voluntary. Prindle appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.
Reasoning: Whether a plea was voluntary is a mixed question of law and fact. A defendant may withdraw his guilty plea within one year of final judgment for “good cause.” § 46-16-105(2), MCA. Good cause exists when the plea was involuntarily entered. The Court applies the Strickland test and holds Prindle cannot prove prejudice from Claus’s failure to interview more witnesses or hire an expert. It also finds Prindle was informed that negligent endangerment was a lesser included offense of negligent vehicular assault.
An erroneous prediction by defense counsel can rise to the level of misrepresentation if it is a “gross mischaracterization of the likely outcome,” not a “mere inaccurate prediction.” Claus’s statement that he saw no reason why Prindle would not be able to serve his probation in Oregon is merely inaccurate for failing to predict that Prindle would have to complete 90 days in Montana on good behavior first.