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State v. Willie

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

December 20, 2017



          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, STATE OF LOUISIANA Paul D. Connick, Jr., Terry M. Boudreaux, Gail D. Schlosser, Jeffrey Hufft


          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Fredericka Homberg Wicker, and Robert A. Chaisson


         Defendant, Ralph L. Willie, appeals his conviction and sentence pursuant to a guilty plea for intentional possession of pornography involving juveniles where the victim is under the age of 13 in violation of La. R.S. 14:81(E)(5)(a). On appeal, defendant contends his plea should be vacated, arguing the trial court erred in accepting his guilty plea without conducting a hearing to address his pending motion for mental examination. Upon consideration, we conditionally affirm defendant's conviction and remand this matter to the trial court for a determination of whether, at the time defendant pled guilty, reasonable grounds existed to doubt defendant's mental capacity to proceed and, if so, for further action consistent with that finding.

         Statement of the Case

         On October 17, 2013, the Jefferson Parish District Attorney filed a bill of information charging defendant with one count of intentional possession of pornography involving juveniles where the victim is under 13 years of age in violation of La. R.S. 14:81.1(5)(a) [sic].[1] Defendant was arraigned on December 11, 2013, and pled not guilty.

         On July 25, 2014, pursuant to a plea agreement, defendant withdrew his plea of not guilty and pled guilty to one count of possession of child pornography in violation of La. R.S. 14:81.1(E)(5)(a). Pursuant to the plea agreement, the trial judge sentenced defendant to the statutory minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment, at hard labor, to be served without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence. The trial judge notified defendant that, upon release, he is required to register as a sex offender under La. R.S. 15:543.

         Defendant failed to timely appeal, but on July 1, 2016, he filed an application for post-conviction relief ("APCR")-in part challenging the validity of his guilty plea based on his alleged mental incapacity at the time of his plea. On December 2, 2016, the trial court denied defendant's APCR. Defendant filed a supervisory writ to this court on December 12, 2016. On April 4, 2017, this Court granted the writ and remanded the matter to the trial court, instructing the court to consider defendant's APCR as a motion for an out-of-time appeal, pursuant to La. C.Cr.P. art. 930.8. The district court granted defendant's out-of-time appeal on April 10, 2017.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 4, 2012, the Louisiana Attorney General's high-technology crime unit contacted defendant over a peer-to-peer network during a child pornography investigation. On January 22, 2013, pursuant to a warrant, investigators previewed two desktop computers belonging to defendant and identified one video and four images of children between the ages of 9 and 12 years old posed in a sexual manner or engaged in sexual activities. Defendant was arrested and notified of his Miranda[2] rights. In a post-Miranda interview, defendant told police he "like[d]" child pornography, and admitted to searching and possessing child pornography.

         On December 11, 2013, defendant, represented by private counsel, appeared for his arraignment and pled not guilty. On January 16, 2014, defendant failed to appear for a scheduled hearing.

         On January 29, 2014, defendant's privately retained counsel filed an "Initial Discovery Motion" which made several requests, including a "Motion for the Court to Order a Mental Examination of Ralph Wille, "[3] seeking court appointment of an expert to determine Mr. Willie's ability to aid in his defense, to understand the issues involved, and his capacity to understand that he was possibly viewing underage children. In support of this motion, defense counsel argued that defendant displayed clear mental problems of concentration and sometimes gave answers to counsel which did not address the question asked, indicating that defendant did not comprehend what often was a simple question. Defense counsel also asserted that defendant had previously been declared mentally disabled by a social security judge. Defendant produced no documentation supporting his claim for mental incompetency and did not seek a contradictory hearing.

         In the "Initial Discovery Motion" defense counsel also sought to withdraw as counsel of record, citing defendant's non-cooperation, failure to provide requested documents, and refusal to answer his phone, further complicated by defendant's son's lack of cooperation.

         There is no evidence in the record that the trial court addressed defense's "Motion for the Court to Order Mental Examination of Ralph Wille." After defendant's failure to appear at a January 16, 2014, hearing the trial court issued an attachment for his arrest. Thereafter, on January 31, 2014, the trial court granted defense counsel's motion to withdraw as counsel of record. The attachment was ultimately satisfied on May 23, 2014 by defendant's arrest[4]. On June 12, 2014, the trial court appointed Jacque Touzet of the Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Office to represent defendant. Defendant's newly appointed counsel did not request a hearing on defendant's previously filed motion for mental examination, nor does the record reflect that defense counsel withdrew the pending motion prior to the defendant's plea. The record is silent on this issue.

         On July 29, 2014, defendant withdrew his not guilty plea and pled guilty without proceeding to trial. In accordance with the plea agreement, defendant was sentenced to ten years imprisonment at hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence, but with credit for the time defendant had served on his contempt sentence. The State also agreed not to file a habitual offender bill of information pursuant to La. R.S. 15:529.1 against defendant. At sentencing the same day, the trial court informed defendant of the sex offender registration requirements under La. R.S. 15:543, including the requirement that he register as a sex offender for 25 years from the date of his release from prison.

         During the guilty plea and sentencing proceedings, in response to both the court's and defense counsel's questions, defendant displayed signs of confusion. After appointed counsel asked whether defendant wanted to continue being represented by him and enter a guilty plea, the following exchange took place:

The Defendant:
I'm kind of - - I can't think straight.
Mr. Touzet:
The Defendant:
I guess, yes. I don't - - I don't know.
Mr. Touzet
I asked you earlier and you told me you wanted to go forward with me. Has that changed is my question.
The Defendant:
No, it hasn't changed.

         Defense counsel thereafter informed the court that he had explained the plea to defendant, and "believe[d] he understands enough about his case at the time to go forward." Thereafter, during the Boykin[5] colloquy, the trial court did not inquire about defendant's potential mental deficiency that day, nor did either counsel or the court inquire about defendant's pending mental examination motion where previous defense counsel alleged defendant exhibited problems of concentration and comprehension as well as a prior social security disability determination. During sentencing, when questioned about the sex offender notification requirements, defendant displayed further confusion over the sex offender registration form. When asked by the court whether he understood the document, defendant asked his counsel:

The Defendant:
Is that the one that we reviewed? ...

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