Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

State May Cite ‘No Contest’ Plea In Postconviction, Habeas Corpus Proceedings Where Defendant Attacks Conviction Based on That Plea

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that provisions of the state’s Rules of Criminal Procedure and Rules of Evidence that generally bar reference to a defendant’s plea of no contest to a criminal charge in any subsequent civil or criminal court proceeding do not apply to proceedings in which the defendant collaterally attacks the criminal conviction that resulted from his no-contest plea.

The court’s 7-0 decision was authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.

The case arose from a federal court action in which an inmate at the London Correctional Institution, Ernest Hollingsworth, sought a writ of habeas corpus ordering the warden of that prison, Deb Timmerman-Cooper, to release Hollingsworth from custody based on a claim that he was denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of legal counsel during his trial.

When the state proffered evidence that Hollingsworth had entered a plea of no contest at trial, and thus had waived his right to effective assistance of counsel, Hollingsworth moved to exclude that evidence based on Ohio Criminal Rule 11(B)(2) and Ohio Evidence Rule 410(A)(2), which prohibit the admission of a criminal defendant’s no-contest plea to a criminal charge as evidence against him “in any subsequent civil or criminal proceeding.” The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio found that there were no controlling precedents (prior court decisions) addressing the applicability of the cited rules in a habeas corpus action, and asked the Supreme Court of Ohio to answer that question of state law.

In today’s decision, Justice Pfeifer cited the Supreme Court’s 2010 holding in Elevators Mutual Ins. Co. v. J. Patrick O’Flaherty’s Inc. that the purpose behind Crim R.11(B)(2) and Evid.R. 410(A)(2)
is to encourage criminal defendants to enter into plea bargains with the state. He explained that a no-contest plea encourages plea bargains by allowing a defendant not to dispute the charge(s) against him without making an affirmative admission of guilt that could later be used as evidence in a civil lawsuit filed against defendant by someone seeking to recover for economic loss or injury allegedly caused by the defendant’s criminal conduct.

“The purposes served by these two rules are of limited applicability in the present case,” wrote Justice Pfeifer. “The present case involves a habeas action, not a civil suit by a victim. In post-conviction proceedings, there is no risk of subsequent civil liability or even of enhanced criminal liability.”

“At its core, a habeas action is a collateral attack on the underlying conviction.  ... In this case, the conviction was the result of a no-contest plea. To prohibit the state from using the no-contest plea to defend the validity of the conviction that resulted from the plea would render the state mute. The state has no defense if the no-contest plea is not in play. As noted earlier, the clear purposes of Crim.R. 11(B)(2) and Evid.R. 410(A)(2) are to encourage the use of plea bargaining by removing the civil consequences of the plea and to avoid an admission of guilt. Prohibiting the state from introducing evidence of a no-contest plea in a habeas action to show that the petitioner has waived his claim of ineffective counsel does nothing to advance those purposes, and permitting use of the plea does not frustrate them. The plea is not being used to impose liability on the petitioner or to prove his guilt.  There is no risk of subsequent civil liability or even of enhanced criminal liability.  The worst-case scenario for a defendant in a postconviction proceeding such as habeas corpus  is the status quo.”

“We conclude that neither Crim.R. 11(B)(2) nor Evid.R. 410(A)(2) prohibits the use of a defendant’s no-contest plea in a subsequent proceeding in which the defendant collaterally attacks the criminal conviction that resulted from the no-contest plea.   Accordingly, we answer the certified question in the negative.

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2011-1095Hollingsworth v. Timmerman-Cooper, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3907.
Certified Question of State Law, United States District Court, Southern District of Ohio, Western Division, No. 1:08-CV-00745.  The certified question is answered in the negative.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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