The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City is considering the case of a man who claims he was misled into a lengthy prison sentence for a DWI conviction. The high bench will determine whether a lower court should have struck down its original conviction against him because of a faulty plea arrangement.

Michael Williams is incarcerated at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City (Image courtesy of Missouri Department of Corrections)

Michael Williams pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated as a chronic offender in the Warren County Circuit Court in eastern Missouri in 2016.  In doing so he accepted a plea arrangement offered by the prosecutor and recommended by his attorney, which was a sentence of eight years in prison with long-term treatment.  Going to trial and being found guilty would’ve carried a sentence of between five and 15 years.

The treatment program is offered to offenders with substance abuse addiction and consists of between one and two years during a prison sentence.  Once the program is successfully completed, the rest of the offender’s sentence is typically suspended and replaced with a period of probation.

But after the trial court accepted the plea deal and sentenced him, Williams learned after being incarcerated in July of 2016 that he was ineligible for the treatment program.  Although he had four DWI convictions, he did not have the required three felonies to qualify for the treatment.

So, Williams filed a request under a provision in Missouri law that allows those who’ve pleaded guilty and claim their sentences violate the law to have their complaints heard in court.

The request was granted in Warren County.  And with a new attorney, Williams claimed his plea was involuntary because his original lawyer falsely told him he’d be placed in a treatment program.  He further claimed he was denied due process because the trial court that sentenced him did so without ensuring that he was eligible for the program.

Williams contended he would not have pleaded guilty if he knew he was ineligible for the treatment.

But the court charged with reviewing his conviction complaint concluded he failed to prove his case.   It found his contention that he would not have pleaded guilty had he known he was ineligible for the program lacked credibility.  The court determined Williams accepted the plea offer of eight years to avoid a potentially longer sentence – up to 15 years – while hoping to participate in the long-term treatment program.

It also rejected his claim that he was denied due process when the trial court failed to ensure he was eligible for treatment, concluding that he relinquished any standing to object to the trial court’s pre-sentencing actions once he pleaded guilty.

Before the Supreme Court, Assistant Attorney General Robert Bartholomew argued on behalf of the state, essentially meaning he was representing the Warren County Court.

He noted that Williams’ trial attorney informed him that he would’ve been eligible for parole early in his sentence regardless of whether he entered the treatment program. 

“He would be eligible for parole without the treatment within two years,” said Bartholomew.  “This was a (Class) B Felony, and generally that requires approximately 25% of a sentenced served before a defendant is eligible for parole.”

Attorney Ellen Flottman of the Public Defender’s Office in Columbia represented Williams in front of the high court judges.  She said the Circuit Court in Warren County broke the law when it failed to check on Williams’ eligibility for the treatment program. 

“What the statute says is that the court has to check to see if the defendant is eligible, said Flottman.  “And no one checked to see if he was eligible.”

Flottman later added that she has another case with the same set of circumstances as with Williams.  She said courts are failing to fulfill their responsibilities on a regular basis. 

“This is a gotcha,” said Flottman.  “They’re sentencing people to something that they’re not eligible for, and they’re never checking to see if they’re eligible or not.”

Flottman is asking the high bench to strike down the circuit court’s findings against Williams and cancel out his conviction.  Williams is currently incarcerated in the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City.

The Supreme Court, which heard arguments last Wednesday, is deliberating the case and could hand down a decision at any time.

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