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Kennedy v. Hines

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 22, 2019

KENNEDY
v.
HINES.

          Warren, Justice.

         Appellant Kathleen Kennedy, Warden, challenges a habeas court's order setting aside Deborah Hines's convictions and sentences for four counts of identity fraud. In its order granting habeas relief, the habeas court determined that the trial court improperly participated in the plea process such that Hines's plea was involuntary and violated due process. Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the habeas court erred by placing on the Warden, the habeas respondent, the burden of proving that Hines's guilty plea was voluntary, knowing, or intelligent, and further erred by concluding that the trial court's comments at the hearing rendered Hines's plea involuntary. We therefore reverse the habeas court's order.

         1. The record shows that in November 2009, a jury found Deborah Hines guilty of four counts of identity fraud. The trial court sentenced her as a recidivist under OCGA § 17-10-7 (c) to an aggregate of 45 years with 20 to serve. Hines filed a motion for new trial, new counsel was appointed, and a hearing was held on March 21, 2013. At the outset of that hearing, the State announced that it had reached an agreement with Hines's counsel whereby Hines would plead guilty to the four counts of identify fraud and forego her motion for new trial, and the State would recommend a reduced recidivist sentence of 45 years, to serve 15. As part of the plea deal, Hines also expressly agreed to waive her right to direct appeal and to seek habeas relief; to dismiss any pending lawsuits she had filed against any judge, prosecutor, or law enforcement officer in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit; and to dismiss bar complaints against the prosecutors in her case. The court accepted Hines's negotiated plea and sentenced her to 45 years, to serve 15.

         On January 6, 2017, Hines filed a habeas corpus petition. Among other things, she claimed that her "conviction [was] obtained by plea of guilty which was unlawfully induce[d] or not made voluntarily." The Warden filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Hines had waived her right to seek habeas relief. In response, Hines asserted that she did not enter her plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily; that the trial court improperly participated in her plea; and that the signature on the final disposition was not hers. After an initial hearing that resulted in the denial of the Warden's motion to dismiss, the Warden renewed her motion to dismiss, and the habeas court held another hearing where it took additional evidence.

         On April 18, 2018, the habeas court entered an order granting habeas relief and setting aside Hines's convictions and sentences because "the trial court improperly inserted itself in the plea process" with "unduly coercive" statements that intimidated Hines, "rendering Petitioner's plea involuntary." The habeas court cited Lejeune v. McLaughlin, 296 Ga. 291 (766 S.E.2d 803) (2014), for the general proposition that guilty pleas must be voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, but the habeas court also asserted that, at the habeas stage, "the State" bore the burden of demonstrating the voluntariness of a plea. Citing Uniform Superior Court Rule 33.5 (A) and State v. Hayes, 301 Ga. 342, 345 (801 S.E.2d 50) (2017), the habeas court noted that "participation in the plea negotiation process is prohibited by court rule" and "prohibited as a constitutional matter when it is so great as to render a plea involuntary." See USCR 33.5 (A) ("The trial judge should not participate in plea discussions."). It then concluded that although the trial court had sufficiently advised Hines of the rights listed in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 243 (89 S.Ct. 1709, 23 L.Ed.2d 274) (1969), the court had improperly participated in the plea process and Hines's plea was rendered involuntary based on the following exchange:

THE COURT: How do you plead to these four charges?
THE DEFENDANT: I'm pleading guilty, but actually, I don't want no trial, but I'm not guilty for these charges.
THE COURT: Ms. Hines, now, look, if you're not -- you've already been found guilty --
THE DEFENDANT: I know.
THE COURT: -- by a jury and I don't want to play any games with you here today. Do you want to enter your guilty plea?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: And do you admit your guilt?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, sir.

In particular, the habeas court deemed "unduly coercive" the portion of the exchange where the trial court reminded Hines that a jury had already found her guilty and stated: "I don't want to play any games." The Warden filed a timely notice of appeal, and the ...


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