Plea After Stand Your Ground Hearing

If you are charged with murder or attempted murder in South Carolina, and at the time of the incident you were defending yourself – in your home, car, or any other place that you had a right to be – you are entitled to immunity under SC’s Protection of Persons and Property Act. However, you are not entitled to a conditional plea; if you lose the immunity hearing, you will not be able to appeal the issue if you should change your mind and plead guilty afterwards. So, if a defendant wants to appeal a pretrial ruling, it requires the trial to happen (as well as a guilty verdict).

You are not entitled to immunity, however, until the court agrees that you are entitled to immunity…

In State v. Sims, the SC Court of Appeals held that when a defendant is denied immunity in the pretrial hearing, they must proceed to trial and they cannot appeal the denial of immunity after they enter a guilty plea. This expands on the South Carolina Supreme Court case State v. Isaac, in which the court held that the denial of immunity under South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law was not immediately appealable.

No Conditional Guilty Plea in SC

A “knowing, voluntary, and intelligent guilty plea ‘constitutes a waiver of nonjurisdictional defects and claims of violations of constitutional rights.’”

A conditional guilty plea is when a defendant pleads guilty, but still reserves their right to appeal a pretrial ruling – SC courts have not only held that this is impermissible, but also that any conditional plea is invalid and will be vacated on appeal – the circuit courts are instructed to refuse to accept any conditional guilty plea. Situations like this frequently present themselves in drug cases. In many drug cases, defendants will challenge the constitutional basis for the initial search and seizure that led to their arrest in a hearing known as a suppression hearing. Should they lose that hearing, a guilty plea is sometimes the less risky road to take thereafter. However, they should proceed knowing that the Court of Appeals will not review the judge’s ruling on the suppression hearing. Since a plea is a waiver of all defenses, a guilty plea is very rarely overturned on appeal.

So, a defendant who is claiming immunity under the Protection of Persons and Property Act cannot plead guilty and then appeal the denial of immunity – they must go to trial, get convicted, and then appeal the denial of immunity.

This puts the defendant in a difficult position – for example, in this case:

  • The defendant was made a plea offer to plead guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN) instead of attempted murder – a small benefit in exchange for a guilty plea;
  • The defendant believed he was entitled to immunity under the Protection of Persons and Property Act;
  • The Court disagreed and denied his motion for immunity; and
  • The defendant now must choose between a plea offer that reduces the time he will spend in prison or going to trial on attempted murder charges, hoping that the appellate courts will reverse the denial of immunity.

Are Conditional Guilty Pleas Vacated by the Appellate Court?

The SC Court of Appeals says that Miller’s guilty plea was conditional and therefore they will not consider his appeal of the denial of immunity.

They also say that conditional guilty pleas in SC are so disfavored that they will be vacated by the appellate court… but they did not vacate Miller’s plea…

Possibly Miller will get relief in the SC Supreme Court, and, if not, he may have success in a post-conviction relief (PCR) action based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel (if trial counsel advised him that he would be able to appeal after a guilty plea) or ineffective assistance of appellate counsel (if the remedy was to vacate his conviction and they did not ask for it).

If his case is reversed on PCR, his conviction is reversed, and he is granted a new trial, he still must go to trial on charges of attempted murder before the court will allow him to appeal the denial of immunity.

Charleston, SC Criminal Appeals and Murder Defense Lawyer

Grant B. Smaldone handles criminal appeals, post-conviction relief (PCR), and criminal defense for his clients in the Charleston and Eastern SC area. If you have been charged with a crime or need to challenge a criminal conviction, call now at (843) 808-2100 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a free consultation.