Many criminal cases are disposed of by guilty pleas, in which the trial judge must be satisfied that the defendant’s plea is knowingly and voluntarily given. Under Maryland law, even after conviction a defendant may file what is known as a petition for writ of error corum nobis (“before us”) arguing that some fundamental error not in the original record in the case requires a judgment of guilt to be aside. What must be shown to obtain such relief was explored in a recent reported opinion from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in the case of Dale Byrd v. State of Maryland.
The Court of Special Appeal’s opinion indicates that Byrd pled guilty in two cases of possession of heroin with intent to distribute narcotics. In each case, the State indicated that two different police officers observed Byrd exchanging money for what appeared to be drugs, and heroin capsules were found at the scene. After serving his sentence and completing probation, Byrd filed this petition to set aside his guilty pleas which if granted may have reduced his sentencing in another later criminal case.
At a hearing, defense counsel offered evidence that before the guilty pleas were entered personnel records of each officer showed they had been dishonest in previous unrelated cases, which was not disclosed by the prosecution. The test for obtaining corum nobis relief requires the defendant to prove 1) the grounds to challenge the conviction must involve a lack of jurisdiction or a constitutional or other fundamental right, 2) evidence to overcome the presumption of regular proceedings in the criminal case, 3) petitioner faced significant collateral consequences from the conviction, 4) the issue was not waived, and 5) there is no other legal remedy. Even assuming Byrd could meet requirements 2 through 5, the trial judge denied the petition.
The appellate court upheld the denial of the relief. It noted that the alleged dishonest conduct that might have impeached the officers’ testimony was unrelated to Byrd’s cases. There was no showing that the prosecutor made any representations about the honesty of the officers, nor that the prosecutor even knew about their past issues. The Court held that the prosecution had no obligation to volunteer such impeachment information to the defense. That the defendant long after his guilty plea realized that the State’s case against him was not as strong as he thought gave him no right to set aside his guilty plea in the absence of any improper conduct by the State.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.