Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: John E. MacDonald, Esq.
For Defendant: Jeanine McConaghy, Esq.
Before this Court is the application of Frans Uribe (Mr. Uribe or Petitioner) for postconviction relief. Mr. Uribe seeks to vacate his plea of nolo contendere, entered on May 2, 1991, on grounds that it failed to meet the requirements of Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure. The State of Rhode Island (State) objects to Mr. Uribe's application. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 10-9.1-1, et seq.
Facts and Travel
On January 4, 1990, the Rhode Island State Police executed a search warrant at Mr. Uribe's residence. See Hr'g Tr. at 4 (Tr.), May 2, 1991. During that search, the police found drug-related paraphernalia and nine plastic bags containing cocaine. See id. The State filed a criminal information on March 1, 1990, charging Mr. Uribe with one count of possession of one ounce to one kilogram of cocaine and one count of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. See State v. Uribe-Mejia, Criminal Information No. P2-90-0850A (R.I. Super. 1990). At his arraignment, Mr. Uribe pled not guilty to both counts. See Tr. at 3. On May 2, 1991, Mr. Uribe, with the assistance of counsel, changed his not guilty plea to a plea of nolo contendere. See Plea Aff., State's Mem. of Law in Opp'n of Pet'r's Appl. for Post-Conviction Relief, Ex. 1. After accepting Mr. Uribe's nolo contendere plea, the hearing justice imposed concurrent sentences on both counts of fifteen years imprisonment, with four years to serve and eleven years suspended, with probation. See Tr. at 11. At the time of his conviction, Mr. Uribe was a legal permanent resident of the United States. See id. at 9. As a result of his plea and conviction, Mr. Uribe was deported to Columbia in August 2011. See Pet'r's Mem. of Law in Supp. of Appl. for Post-Conviction Relief, at 2.
Mr. Uribe, represented by new counsel, filed the instant application for postconviction relief on January 6, 2012. He seeks to vacate his nolo contendere plea on the grounds that it did not comply with Rule 11 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 11). In particular, Mr. Uribe argues that the hearing justice lacked a sufficient factual basis for acceptance of his plea.
Standard of Review
"Once a defendant has entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere and sentence has been imposed, any issue relating to the validity of the plea must be raised by way of postconviction relief." State v. Vashey, 912 A.2d 416, 418 (R.I. 2006) (quoting State v. Desir, 766 A.2d 374, 375 (R.I. 2001) (superseded by statute on other grounds)). Postconviction relief is a statutory remedy available to a previously convicted defendant who now contends that his or her conviction was in violation of the state or federal constitution. See State v. Laurence, 18 A.3d 512, 521 (R.I. 2011) or the laws of this State; Sec. 10-9.1-1.
"A plea of nolo contendere is the substantive equivalent of a guilty plea in Rhode Island." State v. Figueroa, 639 A.2d 495, 498 (R.I. 1994) (citing State v. Feng, 421 A.2d 1258, 1266 (R.I. 1980)). "Guilty pleas are valid only if voluntarily and intelligently entered, and the record must so affirmatively disclose." Id. (citing Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969)). Thus, a defendant who enters a plea of nolo contendere "waives several federal constitutional rights and consents to judgment of the court." Feng, 421 A.2d at 1266 (citing Johnson v. Mullen, 120 R.I. 701, 390 A.2d 909 (1978)).
In a postconviction relief procedure, the "applicant bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he [or she] is entitled to postconviction relief." Burke v. State, 925 A.2d 890, 893 (R.I. 2007) (citing Larngar v. Wall, 918 A.2d 850, 855 (R.I. 2007)). Thus, the applicant bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she did not intelligently and understandingly waive his or her rights. Figueroa, 639 A.2d at 498 (citing Cole v. Langlois, 99 R.I. 138, 142-43, 206 A.2d 216, 218-19 (1965)). "[A] plea will be vacated when it is shown to have been obtained from a defendant unaware and uninformed as to its nature and its effect as a waiver of his fundamental rights." Id. (citing Cole, 99 R.I. At 141, 206 A.2d at 218). Since postconviction relief proceedings are "civil in nature[, ]" Ouimette v. Moran, 541 A.2d 855, 856 (R.I. 1988), the rules and statutes applicable in civil proceedings shall apply. See § 10-9.1-7.
Law and Analysis
Mr. Uribe maintains that he is entitled to postconviction relief because the hearing justice lacked a sufficient factual basis for acceptance of his nolo contendere plea to either Count I, possession of one ounce to one kilogram of cocaine, or Count II, possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. As such, he contends that the plea failed to meet the requirements of Rule 11.
Rule 11 sets out the requirements for a trial court's acceptance of a plea of nolo contendere. See Super. R. Crim. P. 11. It provides in pertinent part:
"A defendant may plead not guilty, guilty or, with the consent of the court, nolo contendere. The court may refuse to accept a plea of guilty, and shall not accept such plea or a plea of nolo contendere without first addressing the defendant personally and determining that the plea is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea . . . . The court shall not enter a judgment upon a plea of guilty or ...