Immigrant Says He Didn't Understand Plea Deal Offer
The Law Tribune previews an important or interesting case most weeks when the Connecticut Appellate Court or the Connecticut Supreme Court are in session.
Case: H.P.T. v. Commissioner of Correction
Court: Connecticut Supreme Court
Date: Tuesday, September 27
Time: 11 a.m.
Attorneys: Adele V. Patterson, Michael Proto
Summary: A Vietnamese immigrant who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for assaulting his daughter claims his trial lawyer, because of a language barrier, never properly explained to him that he was offered a plea deal that would have prevented a trial and limited his prison time to nine years.
Background: Because the victim in this case is the defendant's daughter, full names were not revealed in court records. The father, H.P.T., is a 53-year-old Vietnamese immigrant accused of attacking his 15-year-old daughter with an umbrella and an iron in their family home on June 25, 2002.
Additional charges were later added when investigators discovered that besides the physical abuse, H.P.T. had also been sexually abusing the girl.
H.P.T. was charged with crimes including second- and third-degree assault, second-degree sexual assault, and risk of injury to a minor. In April 2004, he was convicted by a jury. He was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Christine Keller to 23 years in prison, suspended after 13 years, and 10 years of probation.
H.P.T. has since brought a habeas action alleging that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to properly communicate and advise him with respect to a plea offer that was made by prosecutors. The deal would have been 20 years in prison, suspended after nine years, and 20 years of probation.
Specifically, H.P.T., whose native language is Vietnamese, claimed that his trial lawyer, Thompson Page, failed to provide him with a translator to assist in explaining the offer. In fact, H.P.T. claims that he did not even know that an offer had been made until well after his conviction and sentencing. He also claims that had his attorney adequately communicated with him, he would have accepted the offer and not proceeded to trial.
The habeas court agreed and found that counsel's representation of the petitioner with respect to the plea bargain process amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel that prejudiced H.P.T. The habeas court, as a result, directed the judge who initially sentenced H.P.T. to resentence him to a prison term that matched the initial plea offer.
The state appealed the habeas court's ruling, but the state Appellate Court sided with the habeas court. The appellate judges found no error in the habeas court's conclusion that H.P.T. had prevailed on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim and also agreed with the decision to implement the plea offer as the sentence.
With respect to that sentence, the Appellate Court noted that a habeas court has considerable discretion to frame a remedy, so long as the remedy is commensurate with the scope of the constitutional violations which have been established.
State prosecutors disagree and have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
According to documents filed by Assistant State's Attorney Michael Proto, H.P.T.'s lawyer, Page, had represented the Vietnamese man in other real estate matters and had known him for about seven years. Page believed he knew when H.P.T. understood what was being said to him and when he didn't understand. The lawyer believed his client understood when the judge asked him if he was sure he agreed to forego the plea offer and take his chances at trial. H.P.T. also had insisted he was innocent of the sexual assault charges, Page claimed.
Proto argues that the Appellate Court should not have affirmed the habeas court's decision to implement the plea offer as the sentence. "The habeas court's remedy grants a windfall to the petitioner while squandering the resources the state has invested in the prosecution of the petitioner," Proto wrote in his brief to the justices.
Proto also cites two cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires a case of this nature to go back to the sentencing judge "to consider all relevant information and impose an appropriate sentence."
Senior Assistant Public Defender Adele V. Patterson, meanwhile, said the circumstances of the Connecticut case are not comparable to the Supreme Court decisions cited by Proto. She argues that the Appellate Court was correct in upholding the habeas court's decision to implement the plea offer as the defendant's sentence.
"Under Connecticut law, as under federal law, a habeas corpus court has the power and the obligation to remedy a proved constitutional violation within the jurisdiction of the court," argues Patterson. "As long as the remedy is adequate to meet the constitutional violation found, the form of remedy is within the sound discretion of the post-conviction trial court. The remedy ordered in this case is in accordance with the habeas court's power and duty to 'dispose of the case as law and justice require.'"•