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State v. Lankford

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 2, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
BENJAMIN CURTIS LANKFORD, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 12 February 2019.

          Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 13 February 2018 by Judge Michael D. Duncan in Wilkes County, No. 17 CRS 050494-95, 17 CRS 000434 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Rory Agan, for the State.

          Meghan Adelle Jones for defendant-appellant.

          MURPHY, JUDGE

         Where a defendant moves to withdraw his plea of guilty or no contest before sentencing but after he has been informed of his sentence by the presiding judge, such motion need only be granted where a trial court's denial would result in a manifest injustice. Here, Defendant, Benjamin Curtis Lankford, moved to withdraw his plea of no contest more than two months after he was told his sentence by the trial court. The trial court's denial of Defendant's motion did not result in a manifest injustice, and is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Defendant was indicted for fleeing to elude arrest, speeding, driving left of center, driving while license revoked, and attaining the status of habitual felon. On 3 February 2018, Defendant entered a plea of no contest to the charges of fleeing to elude arrest, driving while license revoked, and attaining habitual felon status. Nine other charges were dismissed in exchange for his plea. At this hearing, Defendant was advised that he would "be sentenced as a habitual felon at a Class D, prior record level VI, at the lowest end of the mitigated range not less than 77 months nor more than 105 months in the North Carolina Department of Adult Corrections." Defendant was granted pretrial release, and the matter was continued until 2 April 2018, when judgment was to be entered. Defendant failed to appear for his scheduled sentencing hearing, and an order for his arrest was issued on 9 April 2018.

         On 8 May 2018, Defendant appeared before the Superior Court on a motion to withdraw his no contest plea. Defendant explained that he believed his plea agreement included a provision that allowed him to amend his plea "if there was any evidence that was brought forth of this case[, ]" and that he wished to withdraw his plea. Defendant also told the trial court, "I'm not guilty of these charges that they've charged me with[.]" Defendant's counsel asked to respond to his client's statements and argued "the State could prove absolutely and without a doubt in [trial counsel's] opinion" that Defendant was guilty as charged. Defendant's counsel explained that Defendant was not claiming innocence regarding the charges he had pled to, but was "talking about the possession of a firearm by a felon [charge], one of the cases that would be dismissed [under his plea agreement]." Counsel further expressed that he had advised Defendant against filing a motion to withdraw his plea, and that, if the trial court granted the motion, counsel would need to withdraw his representation because there would be "a conflict that couldn't never [sic] be solved."

         The trial court found that Defendant had received competent legal representation and had not been coerced into entering his original plea of no contest. Subsequently, the trial court concluded there was no fair and just reason that Defendant should be permitted to withdraw his plea and denied Defendant's motion to do so. The trial court entered judgment upon the plea of no contest and sentenced Defendant, as previously announced, to an active term of 77 to 105 months.

         ANALYSIS

         In his only argument on appeal, Defendant argues the trial court erred in denying his motion to withdraw his plea of no contest. Defendant contends the trial court was required to grant his motion because he presented a fair and just reason for withdrawal and the State did not allege or show any substantial prejudice which would have been caused by the withdrawal.

         "While there is no absolute right to withdrawal of a guilty plea, withdrawal motions made prior to sentencing, and especially at a very early stage of the proceedings, should be granted with liberality[.]" State v. Handy, 326 N.C. 532, 537, 391 S.E.2d 159, 161-62 (1990) (internal citations omitted).

In a case where the defendant seeks to withdraw his guilty plea before sentence, he is generally accorded that right if he can show any fair and just reason. On the other hand, where the guilty plea is sought to be withdrawn by the defendant after ...

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