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Common Errors with Stipulated Facts Trials

Posted by attorney Michael Morgan

A fairly common error associated with a stipulated facts trial is the (mistaken) belief that such a trial is the same as a defendant agreeing to their guilt to the charged offense. see State v. Johnson, 104 Wn. 2d 338 (1985). " In a stipulated facts trial, the judge or the jury still determines the defendant's guilt..." Id. at 342. Because a stipulated facts trial is not the same thing as a guilty plea, a defendant who agrees to proceed with a stipulated facts trial need not receive the same advisements as required to be given to defendants before the acceptance of a guilty plea. A common, but not always harmless, error made by some judges is that they do provide certain unnecessary advisements to defendants that seek to proceed by means of a stipulated facts trial. These advisements are probably given because courts "indulge every reasonable presumption against waiver" of such constitutional rights as the right to trial by jury. Johnson v Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938). Because of this principle, when judges take it upon themselves to advise defendants of their rights--those advisements must be accurate for a waiver of those rights to be valid. see Lutton v. Smith 8 Wash. App. 822 (1973). An advisement given by judges and actually found in CrRLJ 6.1.2(b) is that the "process" of a stipulated facts trial somehow requires a defendant to give up his right to testify and present evidence--even though no such requirement exists in the law. A court rule, however, cannot eliminate or diminish a defendant's constitutional rights. see State v. Pelkey, 109 Wn. 2d 484 (1987) and improper waivers can be the basis for an appeal and a remand for a new trial.

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