Petitioner was not able to show prejudice under Strickland where he was unable to show that it would have been reasonable to reject the plea offer

The appellant in People v. Watkins, 2019 IL App (4th) 180605 appealed the decision of the trial court striking his post-plea motions to withdraw his guilty pleas as untimely and summarily dismissing his post-conviction petition. The Fourth District affirmed the judgments of the trial court because the appellant withdrew his challenges to the dismissal of his post-plea motions and found the post-conviction petition to be frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 2.

Watkins entered negotiated guilty pleas for unlawful possession of a controlled substance with the intent to deliver it, for which he received two consecutive six-year terms of imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 1. At the time the trial court accepted the plea, the court found the factual bases to be sufficient and the guilty pleas to be knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently made. Id. at ¶ 7.

Shortly thereafter, Watkins moved to withdraw his guilty pleas in both cases, while simultaneously petitioning the court for post-conviction relief. Id. at ¶ 10. The post-plea motions alleged that the pleas had been “induced by erroneous advice and urging by [defense counsel] that pleading guilty was the only choice that [he] had because all the evidence suggested that he was guilty.” Watkins further alleged that the guilty pleas were not voluntary and knowing and that he was not aware of the direct consequences of his pleas. Id. at ¶ 10. Both petitions were stricken as untimely for being filed “well after” 30 days after judgment. Id. at ¶ 11.

As noted, at the time the motion to withdraw guilty plea was entered, Watkins also filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to challenge the legality of the traffic stop resulting in appellant’s arrest. Id. at ¶ 13. Appellant alleged that this ineffective assistance resulted in an involuntary guilty plea and the subversion of his will via bad legal advice. Watkins argued that defense counsel should have subjected the State’s case to meaningful adversarial testing by filing a motion to suppress, which would have been granted by the court. The petition included three reasons why Watkins had suffered a violation of his fourth amendment rights during the traffic stop. Shortly after filing, the circuit court summarily dismissed the post-conviction petition. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Watkins abandoned his challenge to the dismissal of the motions to withdraw both guilty pleas. As such, the court did not evaluate these claims and affirmed the circuit court’s judgement in this regard. Id. at ¶ 21.

On the summary dismissal of the post-conviction petition, the court determined that because any claim of substantial denial of constitutional rights not raised in the original or amended post-conviction petition is waived, its analysis would be limited exclusively to issues raised in the original petition. Id. at ¶ 24. To that end, the court utilized the Strickland test for determining the effectiveness of defense counsel, requiring a petitioner to demonstrate both deficient performance and prejudice resulting from the alleged ineffective assistance. Id. at ¶ 29.

The court noted that under the Strickland standard, “a conclusory allegation that a defendant would not have pleaded guilty and would have demanded a trial is insufficient to establish prejudice;” rather, a petitioner must also demonstrate that a decision to reject the plea bargain would have been rational under the circumstances. Id. at ¶ 31. In its review of the reasonableness of defense counsel’s advice to accept the plea deal (as opposed to filing a motion to suppress), the court held that counsel’s advice to accept a plea deal for less than half the maximum prison term was a strategic decision that the court owed great deference to. It therefore concluded that the post-conviction petition in this case was frivolous. Id. at ¶ 39. The appellate court affirmed.

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