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No contest plea admissible in habeas cases

Published: November 1, 2012

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that a no contest plea, which is generally inadmissible as evidence under Ohio Criminal Procedure rules and Ohio case law, may be admissible if the defendant seeks a habeas corpus ruling.

The Ohio court made its 7-0 ruling in the case of Hollingsworth v. Timmerman-Cooper, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3907. The decision was authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.

The Hollingsworth case follows the recent United States Supreme Court case Wall v. Kholi, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 1278, 1284, 179 L.Ed.2d 252 (2012), which held that a habeas case is essentially a collateral attack on the underlying conviction.

Ernest Hollingsworth is an inmate at the London Correctional Institute, having pled no contest at trial to his underlying charges. He had entered his no contest plea in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in 2005 to charges of marijuana possession and trafficking and was sentenced to concurrent eight year sentences.

Hollingsworth spent the next three years filing appeals through the Ohio court system, eventually reaching the Ohio Supreme Court, which let him stay in prison.

He then brought a habeas action against the warden of the London Correction Institution in federal district court, claiming that his constitutional right to effective legal counsel was denied during the trial.

Hollingsworth cited Ohio Crim.R. 11(B)(2) and Evid. R. 410(A)(2) for the proposition that his no contest plea was inadmissible in his habeas case.

The federal court found that there was no Ohio precedent for this action, and certified the Ohio Supreme Court to make a ruling on the question of whether or not Ohio R. Crim. P. 11(B) (2) and Ohio R. Evid. 410(A)(2) apply to prohibit the use of that no contest plea in a subsequent civil proceeding, “which is a collateral attack on the criminal judgment which results from the no contest plea, such as a petition for postconviction relief under (state law), or a federal habeas corpus action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.”

Those Ohio rules prohibit the use of a defendant’s no contest plea against the defendant ‘in any subsequent civil…proceeding’.

Both of the Ohio rules contain language which makes a no contest plea inadmissible against the defendant in “any subsequent civil or criminal proceeding.”

The Ohio Court answered the federal court’s question in the negative.

The Supreme Court’s analysis started with a look at Elevators Mut. Ins. Co. v. J. Patrick O'Flaherty's, Inc., 125, Ohio St.3d 362, 2010-Ohio-1043, 928 N.E.2d 685, which was cited for the proposition that the basic logic behind those two rules is to limit the ability of a subsequent plaintiff to sue the defendant in civil court for the activity of the convicted person in the underlying charges.

The court wrote that the state rules in question have “limited applicability” in the instant case, because there would be no threat of a civil action as a result of a habeas request.

The court next cited and distinguished State v. Mapes, 19 Ohio St.3d 108, 484 N.E.2d 140 (1985), where the court allowed a no contest plea to a New Jersey murder into evidence for the death penalty phase of an Ohio case. The Mapes allowed the prior conviction into evidence, even though the conviction itself was based on a no contest plea, because the conviction was separate from the plea.

The same basic logic followed in the Hollingsworth opinion, based also on the recent Wall v. Kholi U.S. decision.

The Hollingsworth opinion concluded that, indeed, “At its core, a habeas action is a collateral attack on the underlying conviction.”

The court went on to say that, in this case, the state would not be able to put forward their position at all, and would have no defense at all, if it could not refer to the no contest plea. If the state had no defense, then there would be no plea bargaining, which would obviate the intent of Crim.R. 11(B)(2) and Evid.R. 410(A)(2), which, said the court, “encourage the use of plea bargaining by removing the civil consequences of the plea and to avoid an admission of guilt.”

The court concluded by stating that prohibiting the state from introducing evidence of a no-contest plea in a habeas action, “does not advance the purpose of those rules, and permitting the use of the plea does not frustrate them”

“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.”