Mr. Horntvedt is an African-American. He faced multiple charges of sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, and promoting prostitution. The charges resulted from a multi-jurisdiction human trafficking investigation. The State intended to seek a 66-year sentence if the case went to trial. However, it offered Mr. Horntvedt a plea agreement specifying a 25-year sentence recommendation.
On March 26, 2021, a meeting occurred at the Franklin County Corrections Center to discuss terms of a plea offer. Attendees included Mr. Horntvedt, the deputy prosecutor, Mr. Horntvedt’s attorney, and two corrections deputies. With the exception of Mr. Horntvedt, every person in attendance was white. The meeting was recorded and later transcribed.
During the meeting, the prosecuting attorney advised Mr. Horntvedt that if he took his case to trial, his jury would “not necessarily be a jury of his peers.” Gesturing to herself and Mr. Horntvedt’s attorney, both of whom are white, the prosecuting attorney stated, “It’ll be a jury of our peers, be a lot of white folks.” The trial court observed that the prosecuting attorney’s comments were improper. However, it nevertheless denied Mr. Horntvedt’s motion to withdraw his plea, finding the plea was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.
As Mr. Horntvedt was leaving the meeting, he told one of the corrections officers, “That’s some racist shit right there.”
Soon after, Mr. Horntvedt agreed to plead guilty in accordance with the State’s offer. At the April 27, 2021, hearing, the trial court explained the significance of a guilty plea and then asked Mr. Horntvedt if anyone threatened him to get him to plead guilty. Mr. Horntvedt replied, “No.” Defense counsel then interjected, “I will just make a brief record that Mr. Horntvedt] was concerned about a statement that was made out of court, but we discussed that and that’s not really a threat. It was just a statement of fact, and we’ll leave it at that for now.”
The court did not inquire into the out-of-court statement. The court accepted Mr. Horntvedt’s guilty plea and found it was “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made; not the product of fear, coercion, or ignorance.” The court ordered the State to prepare a presentence investigation report and continued the case for sentencing.
MOTION TO WITHDRAW GUILTY PLEA
At the start of the June 2, 2021, Sentencing Hearing, defense counsel informed the court that Mr. Horntvedt’s grandmother wished to play a 60-second excerpt from the recorded remarks made by the prosecutor during the plea negotiation meeting.
The court asked a few questions about the nature of the recording. It then told defense counsel his client had a choice: “Your client either wants to adhere to the plea, or he wants to attempt to withdraw it.” Defense counsel conferred with Mr. Horntvedt, then informed the court that his client wanted to withdraw the plea. Defense counsel later filed a written motion to withdraw the guilty plea on behalf of Mr. Horntvedt. In an accompanying declaration, defense counsel stated the following:
“When Mr. Horntvedt entered into the plea agreement, there was an indication that he entered into the plea agreement freely and voluntarily without coercion . . . . However, Mr. Horntvedt declared, a few days later, he no longer felt that he entered his plea agreement freely and voluntarily.” ~Defense Counsel for Mr. Horntvedt
After considering the record, the trial court held a hearing with the parties and denied the motion to withdraw the plea. The court found the prosecutor’s statements “improper.” Nevertheless, the court determined Mr. Horntvedt’s guilty plea was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. The court then sentenced Mr. Horntvedt to serve 25 years of confinement and 36 months of community custody.
Mr. Horntvedt appealed his convictions for felony sex trafficking. He argued his guilty plea was procured through an improper appeal to racial bias.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The WA Court of Appeals began its analysis by stating a trial court must permit a defendant to withdraw their plea in order to correct a “manifest injustice” under CrR 4.2(f)
“In this context, a manifest injustice refers to an injustice that is obvious, directly observable, overt, not obscure,” said the Court of Appeals. “One type of manifest injustice that warrants withdrawal of a plea occurs when a plea is involuntary.” The Court explained that a plea may be involuntary due to circumstances such as misinformation, threats, or mental coercion. Additionally, the Court emphasized a defendant’s constitutional right to due process protects against entry of an involuntary plea.
“Mr. Horntvedt argues his plea was involuntary in violation of due process because it was predicated on race-based prosecutorial misconduct. Our case law has yet to address whether this type of prosecutorial misconduct can render a plea involuntary. We conclude that it can. And here, based on an objective review, we conclude the prosecutor’s invocation of race to leverage a guilty plea rendered the plea involuntary as a matter of law.” ~WA Court of Appeals
The Court reasoned that fact that although the prosecutor’s comments were an apparently intentional appeal to racial bias, it does not mean that the prosecutor was actually motivated by animus. The Court stated that although misguided, the prosecutor’s comments may have been well intentioned. “Undoubtedly the prosecutor believed the plea offer was in Mr. Horntvedt’s best interests,” said the Court. “And she appeared motivated to go out of her way to make sure Mr. Horntvedt understood the risks involved in taking his case to trial.”
Nevertheless, stated the Court, the prosecutor’s apparently benign intentions were irrelevant to the objective observer standard. The objective observer analysis is concerned with the impact of racial bias—not a person’s intent.
With that the Court of Appeals remanded the trial court to allow Mr. Horntvedt to withdraw his plea and, if he withdraws it, to set this matter for trial.
My opinion? Good decision. All members of the legal community—law enforcement, attorneys, and judges— bear responsibility for addressing racial inequities in our justice system. This is hard work. None of us has all the answers and all of us will sometimes get things wrong. Yet we must move forward with humility, compassion, and dedication to constant improvement. Mr. Horntvedt has established a manifest injustice impaired the voluntariness of his guilty plea. He was rightfully given the option to withdraw.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.