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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Alford Pleas

In North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S.Ct. 160 (1970), the United States Supreme Court held that it was constitutional for a court to accept a defendant’s guilty plea, even though the defendant maintained his innocence, where the state demonstrated “a strong factual basis for the plea” and the defendant clearly expressed his desire to enter the plea based on his belief that the state’s evidence would be sufficient to convict him. The Minnesota Supreme Court first adopted the procedure in 1977, cautioning that the court should not ‘cavalierly accept’ an Alford plea … .” State v. Goulette, 258 N.W.2d 758 (Minn. 1977).

A valid Alford plea requires three basic steps: 1) an explicit statement that defendant is entering an Alford plea and understands what an Alford plea is; 2) the court or attorneys asking defendant four specific questions (detailed below); 3) entry by the court of a finding as follows: “Based upon the facts offered in support of the plea, the court finds there is sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict of guilty and that the plea is voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entered.” State v. Theis, 742 N.W.2d 643 (Minn. 2007).

The four questions, to establish defendant’s knowing acceptance of the plea, are:

  1. Have you read the complaint, police reports, and other documents in the prosecutor’s file?
  2. Do you understand that if you went to trial the state’s witnesses would testify that _________ occurred? (Prosecutor summarizes the state’s case, including specific statements from the police reports. While this procedure has been upheld as sufficient, the Minnesota Supreme Court has recommended an alternative,
    “better practice” including witness statements. See, Goulette, supra at 761; Theis, supra at 647).
  3. Do you believe that the evidence the state would likely offer against you at trial is sufficient for a jury, applying a reasonable doubt standard, to find you guilty of the offense of: __________? (See, Theis, supra, at 649.)
  4. Are you entering this plea to obtain the benefit of the plea bargain being offered by the prosecutor?

With respect to question 3, note the importance of precise wording.  In State v. Behrens, A13-2014 (Minn. App. 09/15/2014), defendant’s acknowledgment there was a “substantial likelihood” that the jury could and probably would convict him, was upheld on appeal. On the other hand, in State v. Theis, supra at 643, the conviction was reversed when defendant acknowledged only the risk that
he could be convicted if the matter proceeded to trial.

Judge Alan Pendleton

10th Judicial District, Anoka

(Judge Pendleton’s “Judicial Training Blog” can be found at http://pendletonupdates.com/)

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