Trial Court Can't Vacate Guilty Plea Sua Sponte

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: criminal law.

State of Minnesota v. Stacie Ann Miller. MN criminal law

On December 26, 2012, a Champlin, MN, police officer was responding to a call about a driving complaint. He located the car, which was being driven by Stacie Ann Miller, and noted that she had made two turns without signalling. When Miller pulled into a garage, the officer walked up to the car and noted the smell of alcohol. He did a field sobriety test, and when he gave a preliminary breath test, she blew a .195.

The officer arrested Miller, but she pushed him away and kicked him. After a warning, the officer tased her and took her to the station. There, she was read the implied-consent advisory, but refused to submit to a test.

She was charged with DWI for refusing the test, and also with obstruction of legal process. She pleaded guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 365 days in jail, 355 of which would be stayed. She was also ordered to pay the City of Champlin $750 in exchange for the city dropping a forfeiture action. She apparently paid the $750.

Miller apparently fared better in the implied consent proceeding, although the exact record from that case was not made available. But the order in that case apparently found that the arrest had been illegal. At that point, even though the defendant had made no such request, the judge in the criminal case vacated the guilty plea, based upon the order in the implied consent case.

The criminal court then set a hearing to determine whether the $750 should be returned. In an order (signed the day before the hearing), the Hennepin County District Court ordered the city of Champlin to return the $750.

Dismayed by the strange procedure employed in the case, the City of Champlin then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals agreed that the procedure had been flawed. Even though the trial court made reference to the doctrine of "the law of the case," the appeals court noted that this procedure had no applicability, since the implied consent matter was a separate case.

The Court of Appeals also made clear that a decision to vacate a plea can be made only after notice and an opportunity for hearing by both parties. Here, even though a hearing was held, the decision to vacate the plea had already been made, and the hearing related only to the disposition of the $750. And when the city's attorney tried to object, the trial judge interrupted and opined, "I don't care what you think."

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision.

No. A13-1689 (Minn. Ct. App. June 30, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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