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Ineffective counsel argument not valid in drug case, court rules

Special to the Legal News

Published: December 10, 2013

The 11th District Court of Appeals ruled recently that a defendant did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel that resulted in an involuntary guilty plea in the Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas.

The defendant, Tiffany Strong, appealed her conviction for one count of conspiracy to commit illegal assembly or possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs.

“While appellant provides a lengthy statement of facts, she does not reference the record in support of these facts,” wrote Judge Cynthia Westcott Rice on behalf of the three-judge appellate panel.

Judge Rice stated that the only facts the court of appeals considered were those contained in the sentencing transcript.

According to that record, Strong’s co-defendants, Matthew Rufo and Michelle Stetz, were stopped by police in a vehicle shortly after leaving Rufo’s residence.

Rufo gave the police consent to search his house and Strong, who was found in the house, was subsequently indicted.

The two-count indictment charged Strong with fourth-degree and third-degree conspiracy to commit illegal manufacture of drugs.

Pursuant to the terms of a plea bargain, Strong pleaded guilty to the fourth-degree felony charge, the state moved to dismiss the third-degree charge and recommended that the court impose community control.

At the plea hearing, the trial court determined that Strong’s plea was made knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently.

Despite the fact that she had three prior convictions for theft, OVI and drug abuse, the Ashtabula County court sentenced Strong to the recommended two years of community control.

However, Strong proceeded to appeal, arguing in her brief that her counsel was ineffective for failing to inform her that her co-defendants filed motions to suppress, allowing her to plead guilty before those motions were heard and failing to advise her that her case was defensible.

It was for those reasons that Strong argued her guilty plea was not made knowingly. However, the appellate panel found her argument to be nonsensical.

“Appellant has failed to explain, and we do not discern, how any of these alleged deficiencies relate to whether she understood her trial rights and voluntarily waived them,” wrote Judge Rice. “Although (Strong) argues her attorney’s ineffective assistance resulted in her entering a plea that was not voluntary, none of the grounds of her counsel’s alleged ineffectiveness relate to whether her plea was voluntary.”

The appellate panel deemed Strong’s plea to have been entered knowingly and voluntarily because its review of the record demonstrated that the trial court advised her of the nature of the charges and the maximum penalty involved, the effect of her plea and that she would be waiving certain constitutional rights by entering her plea.

In addition to those findings, the court of appeals found that there was no evidence that Strong’s attorney induced her plea in any way.

After the court explained her rights and the effect of her plea, Strong stated on the record that she was entering her plea “of (her) own free will.”

“She said that no one had made any threats or promises or exerted any pressure on her to enter her plea,” wrote Judge Rice. “Appellant said she was ‘satisfied with (her) attorney’s advice, counsel and competence.’”

The attorney’s alleged failure to advise Strong that her co-defendants had filed motions to suppress was not evidence that was substantial enough to warrant a conclusion that his advice was deficient, the appellate court ruled.

“In addition, appellant failed to demonstrate there is a reasonable probability that she would not have pled guilty and would instead have insisted on a trial if her attorney had advised her that her co-defendants had filed motions to suppress and that her case was defensible,” Judge Rice concluded.

Strong’s sentence and the judgment of the Ashtabula County court were affirmed with Presiding Judge Timothy Cannon and Judge Colleen O’Toole concurring.

The case is cited State v. Strong, 2013-Ohio-5189.

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