State v. Chandler, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 18, 2020)

Under G.S. 15A-1023(c), a trial court does not have the discretion to reject a defendant’s guilty plea when the plea is the defendant’s informed choice, is supported by a factual basis, and is the product of an agreement where the prosecutor does not make any recommendations concerning sentence.  In this case, the defendant negotiated a plea arrangement with the State where he would plead guilty to indecent liberties in exchange for the State’s dismissal of a first-degree sexual offense charge.  During the plea colloquy, the defendant stated that he was pleading guilty to prevent the child victim “from being more traumatized” but that he “did not intentionally do what they say I’ve done.”  The trial judge rejected the plea, explaining that his practice was not to accept pleas in situations where a defendant asserts factual innocence.  The defendant’s case was continued to a later court date where he entered a plea of not guilty and was convicted by a jury of first-degree sex offense and indecent liberties.  Construing language in G.S. 15A-1023(c) that a trial judge “must accept the plea” when it is the product of an informed choice and is supported by a factual basis as a statutory mandate, court first found that the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by not accepting the plea automatically was preserved for appellate review notwithstanding the defendant’s failure to raise the argument at trial.  The court then found that because there was a factual basis for the plea and evidence that it was the product of the defendant’s informed choice, the trial judge lacked discretion to reject the plea on grounds of the defendant’s refusal to admit factual guilt and plainly erred by doing so.  The court explained: “Nothing in [G.S.] 15A-1022 or our case law announces a statutory or constitutional requirement that a defendant admit factual guilt in order to enter a guilty plea.”  The court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to the district attorney to renew the plea offer.

Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Newby, dissented and expressed the view that the defendant’s argument was not properly preserved for appellate review.  In Justice Morgan’s view, the trial judge is “the determiner” of whether there is a factual basis for a plea and whether it is the product of informed choice.  While G.S. 15A-1023(c) mandates that a plea be accepted when those conditions are satisfied, the majority erred by substituting its judgement on those conditions for the trial court’s and by considering the defendant’s argument on appeal when the defendant had failed to object in the trial court.