When a trial court fails to advise a defendant and take waivers of any of his trial rights before accepting a guilty plea, the Howard totality of the circumstances test applies to determine whether the plea is valid. Farwell was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and misdemeanor driving with a suspended or revoked license. Prior to trial, he attempted to plead no contest to the misdemeanor charge. The prosecution objected and the court did not accept the change of plea. After defense counsel cross-examined the first witness during trial, the parties entered into a stipulation that established all of the elements of the misdemeanor charge, but the court did not advise Farwell of any of the constitutional rights implicated by a guilty plea or the stipulation, nor did it solicit a personal waiver of those rights. The jury found Farwell guilty as charged. On appeal, Farwell challenged the validity of the stipulation. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. The California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. A stipulation that admits all the elements of a charged crime is tantamount to a guilty plea and the record must demonstrate that the defendant voluntarily and intelligently waived his constitutional trial rights. In People v. Howard (1992) 1 Cal.4th 1132, the court held that a plea is valid notwithstanding the lack of express advisements and waivers “if the record affirmatively shows that it is voluntary and intelligent under the totality of the circumstances.” Following Howard, some appellate courts concluded this test only applied to incomplete-advisement cases (like Howard), but not silent-record cases (i.e., where the trial court did not advise the defendant or obtain his waiver of any of his trial rights). After analyzing relevant case law, the California Supreme Court concluded that “the Howard totality of the circumstances test applies in all circumstances where the court fails, either partially or completely, to advise and take waivers of the defendant’s trial rights before accepting a guilty plea.”
Applying the Howard totality of the circumstances test, defendant’s conviction must be reversed because there was no affirmative showing that he understood he was waiving his trial rights by virtue of the stipulation counsel entered on his behalf. The court noted that the “absence of express advisements is particularly troublesome in the context of stipulations that are tantamount to a guilty plea” and that “[w]hen the defendant’s counsel enters into such a stipulation, the record must affirmatively demonstrate that the defendant understood the agreement effectively extinguished his trial rights.” Regardless of whether the circumstances affirmatively demonstrated that Farwell was aware of his constitutional trial rights as a general matter, there was no affirmative evidence that Farwell understood his stipulation would conclusively establish all of the elements of the misdemeanor crime and make the guilty verdict a foregone conclusion. The stipulation was entered in the middle of a witness’ testimony after an unreported discussion at the bench that was apparently outside Farwell’s presence. The court did not discuss the stipulation or the legal effect with Farwell, and counsel did not confirm on the record she had done so. Before counsel entered the stipulation, Farwell had rejected a plea offer for the vehicular manslaughter charge, the court had refused to accept his no contest plea to the misdemeanor count, and he was in the middle of his jury trial. He would have correctly understood that he was accused of both crimes and the prosecution had the burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeal’s decision affirming Farwell’s misdemeanor conviction was reversed and Farwell’s case must be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S231009.PDF