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Njie v. State

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 3, 2017

Abdoulie Njie
State of Rhode Island.

         Supreme Court No. 2015-52-Appeal. (PM 14-262) Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice.

          For Petitioner: Paul Dinsmore, Esq.

          For Respondent: Jeanine P. McConaghy, Esq.

          Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



          for the Court. Abdoulie Njie's application for postconviction relief, premised on ineffective assistance of counsel, was denied in the Superior Court, and he appealed to this Court, contending that the hearing justice's decision was in error. This case came before the Supreme Court on February 10, 2017, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not summarily be decided. After carefully considering the record and the parties' written and oral submissions, we conclude that cause has not been shown and proceed to decide the appeal without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I Facts and Travel

         On September 2, 2011, a grand jury indicted applicant, Abdoulie Njie, on four counts: two counts of first-degree sexual assault (counts 1 and 2), in violation of G.L. 1956 §§ 11-37-2 and 11-37-3, one count of second-degree sexual assault (count 3), in violation of §§ 11-37-4 and 11-37-5, and one count of intimidation of a witness in a criminal proceeding (count 4), in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-32-5(a). On December 4, 2012, after numerous pretrial conferences, Njie pled nolo contendere to counts 3 and 4 of the indictment. In exchange for his plea, the state dismissed counts 1 and 2 in accordance with Rule 48(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure. On count 3, Njie was sentenced to fifteen years at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), twelve years to serve, the balance to be suspended, with probation. On count 4, he was sentenced to five years at the ACI, suspended, with five years' probation to run consecutive to count 3.

         A week after Njie's plea was entered, the state filed a motion under Rule 35 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure to correct the sentence imposed on count 4 because it was illegal. The state submitted that it had "mistakenly advised the [c]ourt and defense counsel that count four (4) of the indictment was a Felony Witness Intimidation charge under [§] 11-32-5 punishable by up to 5 years in prison." After further review, the state determined that count 4 was actually "a misdemeanor offense of Witness Intimidation under [§] 11-32-5(a) punishable by up to one (1) year in prison." The state requested the court "to correct the sentence imposed in count four (4) to one (1) year at the Adult Correctional Institution[s] (ACI) suspended with [one] (1) year probation consecutive to the sentence imposed in [c]ount three (3)." At a hearing on the same day, with applicant present, the state's motion was granted and the original plea form was modified to incorporate this change. A judgment of conviction and commitment was later entered to reflect the modified sentence.

         On January 3, 2014, Njie filed an application for postconviction relief. In that application, he alleged that his sentence and conviction were in violation of the United States Constitution and the Rhode Island Constitution due to the ineffective assistance of counsel. During a hearing on December 9, 2014, Njie's attorney articulated that Njie's request for postconviction relief "should be more interpreted as that [N]ie] did not make a knowing and intelligent plea at the time of his plea." Specifically, his attorney argued that Njie "did not know the consequences" at the time of his plea because "[c]learly he did not know the proper charges." The state contended that no evidence was "presented to [the] [c]ourt that [N]ie] would never have pled if he knew [c]ount 4 was a maximum of one" year instead of five years. Further, the state maintained that, when the motion to correct the sentence was granted, Njie "had no objection through his attorney" and that "there was absolutely no indication from [him] on that day at all that he was now confused as to what was going on."

         The hearing justice, who was the same justice who accepted Njie's plea, determined that "[t]he [c]ourt engaged in a pretty detailed colloquy with [d]efendant before determining that his decision to change his plea was knowing, intelligent and voluntary." The hearing justice indicated that "exactly one week after [N]ie's] plea the sentence was modified so that it was still 15 years, 12 to serve on [c]ount [3]." Further, the hearing justice acknowledged Njie's attorney's argument that it indeed was "quite different to plead to a felony rather than a misdemeanor"; however, he noted that in this case Njie "was willing to plead to a very serious element, that of second degree sexual assault. So whether or not he had pled to a misdemeanor in [c]ount 4, it still would have been a felon[y]." The hearing justice concluded that Njie "failed to demonstrate that his decision to plead guilty to [c]ount 3 was not a knowing, intelligent and voluntary one in exchange for the dismissal of [c]ounts 1 and 2, in exchange for a 12-year term to serve." Furthermore, the hearing justice established that Njie "ratified the change" on the plea form by initialing it, adding that "[i]t was a change to [N]ie's] benefit and not to his detriment." The hearing justice found that "nothing that occurred on the 11th day of December, 2011 modified, interfered or diminished his waiver of his Constitutional rights." After the hearing justice denied his application for postconviction relief, Njie timely appealed to this Court.

         II Standard of Review

         Under Rhode Island law, postconviction relief is set forth in G.L. 1956 § 10-9.1-1(a)(1). Perkins v. State, 78 A.3d 764, 767 (R.I. 2013). "[P]ost-conviction relief is available to a defendant convicted of a crime who contends that his original conviction or sentence violated rights that the state or federal constitutions secured to him." Torres v. State, 19 A.3d 71, 77 (R.I. 2011) (quoting Otero v. State, 996 A.2d 667, 670 (R.I. 2010)). "An applicant who files an application for postconviction relief bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that such relief is warranted." Rivera v. State, 58 A.3d 171, 179 (R.I. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. State, 45 A.3d 594, 601 (R.I. 2012)).

         When reviewing an appeal arising from the denial of an application for postconviction relief, "[t]his Court will not impinge upon the fact-finding function of a hearing justice 'absent clear error or a showing that the [hearing] justice overlooked or misconceived material evidence in arriving at those findings.'" Anderson, 45 A.3d at 601 (quoting Chapdelaine v. State, 32 A.3d 937, 941 (R.I. 2011)). "However, when a decision regarding postconviction relief 'involv[es] questions of fact or mixed questions of law and fact pertaining to an alleged violation of an applicant's constitutional rights, ' this Court's standard of review is de novo." Id. (quoting State v. Laurence, 18 A.3d 512, 521 (R.I. 2011)). Nevertheless, "[e]ven when the de novo standard is applied to issues of constitutional dimension, we still ...

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