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In case with deportation implications, appeals panel remands to consider plea withdrawal


The collateral consequence of some criminal convictions—deportation—may be graver than the sentence handed down by a judge.

The Court of Appeals, in a non-precedential opinion, took another turn in the intersection where immigration and criminal law meet on Aug. 2, by reversing and remanding a motion to withdraw a guilty plea under Rule 15.05 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure.

That motion had been denied by a Sherburne County District Court judge who construed it as a petition for postconviction relief under Minn. Stat. § 590.01.

The Court of Appeals viewed Mohamed v. State differently. It found the case could be resolved under the Rules of Criminal of Procedure, which would give the District Court more authority to allow Abas Ibrahim Mohammed to withdraw his guilty plea to fifth-degree drug possession.

The case is the first in Minnesota to definitively state that motions to withdraw guilty pleas may be brought under Rule 15, said Mohamed’s attorney, Stephen V. Grigsby of Northfield. Given that, it is unclear to Grigsby why it is non-precedential, he said.

Stay of adjudication

Mohammed, a lawful permanent resident of the United States, pleaded guilty in 2013 to a felony fifth-degree controlled-substance crime. He asserted that his plea counsel told him the guilty plea would not affect his immigration status.

The District Court judge stayed adjudication for five years and placed Mohamed on probation, from which he was discharged in 2016. He thus was never formally adjudicated guilty of the controlled-substance crime, despite his plea.

However, Mohammed later learned that his guilty plea would render him deportable under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Asserting that his right to counsel under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Padilla v. Kentucky was violated because he was not properly advised of the immigration consequences, he sought relief.

He asked the court either to permit him to withdraw his guilty plea pursuant to Rule 15.05, subdivision 1, or to schedule an evidentiary hearing for post-conviction relief.

Construing Mohamed’s motion as a petition for post-conviction relief, the court asked him to refile his it accordingly. Then it denied his petition.

On appeal, the case turned on whether Minn. Stat. § 590.01, the post-conviction relief statute, or Rule 15.05, which addresses withdrawal of a guilty plea, controlled.

The District Court had concluded that because Mohamed received a stay of adjudication and probation as part of his plea deal, the court never accepted a guilty plea and he was never “convicted of a crime.” He therefore was ineligible for post-conviction relief under the statute.

The state agreed, arguing on appeal that under the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Johnston v. State, Mohamed is ineligible for post-conviction relief because he was not convicted of a crime.

Important distinction

But writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals panel Monday, Judge Tracy M. Smith ruled that Mohamed’s case is not controlled by Johnston.

In that case, the Supreme Court relied on the language of Section 590.01, which states that a person convicted of a crime may seek relief under the statute, and determined that the defendant was not eligible because he had a stay of adjudication.

But the Court of Appeals distinguished Johnston from the present case because it found Mohamed did not seek relief under that statute. He sought to withdraw his guilty plea under Rule 15.05. He pursued post-conviction relief only when the District Court required him to reframe his motion that way, Smith wrote.

Court of Appeals Judge Tracy M. Smith

Court of Appeals Judge Tracy M. Smith

The distinction is important “because the Supreme Court in Johnston raised the possibility of a Rule 15.05 motion following a stay of adjudication and discharge, and, while the court did not approve such an approach, neither did it foreclose it,” Smith wrote.

Justice Paul Thissen raised that issue in his Johnston dissent, writing:

“[I]f a Rule 15.05 motion were available to Johnston, the District Court readily could have treated Johnston’s post-conviction motion under section 590.01 seeking to vacate the guilty plea as a Rule 15.05 motion and addressed the merits accordingly.”

But that was a dissent. The majority in Johnston disagreed that post-conviction relief was available under the statute, leaving the issue unanswered at that time. It is “squarely before us now,” Smith wrote in Monday’s opinion.

With the issue squarely before it, the Court of Appeals relied on the text of the rule, which states that defendants may move to withdraw their pleas at any time, provided the motion is timely.

“Nothing in the rule states that a motion to withdraw a plea following a stay of adjudication and discharge can only be brought by post-conviction petition,” Smith wrote.

The state further argued that under the 2005 Supreme Court opinion in James v. State, the defendant had to bring a post-conviction petition after he had been sentenced for the crime. But the court distinguished James from this case, because Mohamed was never sentenced for purposes of the post-conviction statute.

The court also refuted Mohamed’s argument about Campos v. State, a 2012 Supreme Court opinion that authorizes a Rule 15.05 motion. That defendant did not have a stay of adjudication and had not been discharged from probation.

Nevertheless, the court held that Mohamed could bring his petition under Rule 15.05.

“In sum, we conclude that Campos does not authorize a Rule 15.05 motion following a stay of adjudication and discharge. But, at the same time, the state has not persuaded us that a Rule 15.05 motion must be construed as a petition for post-conviction relief when the defendant has been neither convicted nor sentenced,” Smith wrote.

The court remanded for the District Court to address the Rule 15.05 motion, pointing out that on remand the court still had to decide whether the motion was timely.

The Sherburne County Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment.

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