Appeals Court (July 3, 2007)
Although judges are obliged not to accept admissions or pleas from defendants who lack the capacity to do so, the failure to specifically inquire whether a defendant is under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication, standing alone, does not warrant vacating the admission or plea.
In 2003 the defendant stood charged in the district court with assault, witness intimidation and malicious damage to personal property. During a plea colloquy, following a recitation of facts by the prosecutor, the defendant admitted to sufficient facts. The judge found sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding, and provided the appropriate "alien warnings" under G.L. c. 278, § 29D. The defendant's case was continued without a finding for one year, and subsequently dismissed.
In 2006, concerned over possible federal immigration consequences of his 2003 plea, the defendant filed a motion for a new trial and to vacate his admissions. Among his claims, he asserted that his admissions were constitutionally inadequate because the judge failed, during the plea colloquy, to inquire whether he was under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medications. Without hearing from the Commonwealth, the judge allowed the motion for new trial based on the plea judge's failure to inquire if the defendant "had any drugs or alcohol in his system." The Commonwealth appealed.
The Appeals Court reversed. It noted that, while judges have an obligation not to accept pleas from defendants who lack the capacity to tender one, and both the defense counsel and prosecutor have an obligation to alert the judge to any impediments to the defendant's ability to enter a plea intelligently and voluntarily, courts are not required to specifically ask the defendant if he is under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medications. While such an inquiry may be helpful, it is not essential to establishing the intelligence or voluntariness of an admission or plea. The Appeals Court noted that the defendant did not claim he was actually under the influence of any substance during the colloquy, and the transcript reflects that he answered all questions rationally and appropriately.
The Court also took pains to note, in dicta, that the fact that "Federal immigration law may work an unfortunate and harsh result is not a basis for vacating admissions or convictions that are otherwise lawful in all respects. See Commonwealth v. Villalobos, 52 Mass.App.Ct. 903, 904-905 (2001).