Post-conviction relief from a plea agreement is uncommon in Tennessee criminal law practice. Post-conviction relief from a misdemeanor plea to underage consumption is all the more rare. It was granted by the Court of Criminal Appeals in the recent case of State v. Word, M2011-00082-CCA-R3-PC (Tenn.Crim,.App. 7-18-2011).
Mr. Word, without counsel at the time, pled guilty in Putnam County General Sessions Court to underage consumption. He received a sentence of eleven months and twenty-nine days, suspended upon compliance with the terms of probation. The problem was that he was not properly charged with anything. He had been given a citation alleging that he committed the offense of underage consumption, citing T.C.A. 57-5-301, which prohibits underage possession of beer. The affidavit of complaint referencing the citation alleged Mr. Word had violated T.C.A. 1-3-113. He pled guilty to a violation of T.C.A. 1-3-113, which doesn't provide a specific criminal penalty for underage consumption (thought it indicates it is unlawful). Neither the affidavit of complaint nor the citation alleged any specific facts which if accepted as true, would establish a criminal offense. The citation merely alleged that Mr. Word was guilty of underage consumption. The narrative section, which is normally used to briefly describe the unlawful conduct, was blank.
Mr. Word filed a timely petition for post-conviction relief. The post-conviction court held a hearing and denied relief. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed.
The Court of Criminal Appeals found that Mr. Word was never properly charged with a crime. The charging instrument did not sufficiently apprise him of the offense for which he was accused. Nor did it allege any facts that would establish an offense. Because there was never a valid criminal charge, the prosecution was invalid and the General Sessions Court lacked jurisdiction to accept a plea agreement. The conviction and sentence were vacated, and charges dismissed.
For more information on whether a particular warrant, citation, indictment, or presentment properly alleges a criminal offense, contact Hindman & Associates.