Garren v. South Carolina, SC Supreme Court, filed 4/25/18: PCR Reversal of Grant of Relief When Lower Court Record Didn’t Support Judge Findings.

This is an important case for those pursuing PCR remedies, or representing PCR Applicants, because it makes clear some of the evidentiary burdens that must be met to win these cases. Garren was convicted of a number of crimes arising out of a domestic dispute. He also has mental health issues. He pleaded guilty. At the plea hearing, his lawyer even noted that he “obviously has some mental problems.” He did not directly appeal his case, but filed a PCR application.

In his PCR application, Garren alleged counsel was ineffective for failing to request a mental health evaluation and that the plea was involuntary as a result of medications he took at the detention center which impaired his ability to understand what he was doing when he entered his guilty plea. At the PCR hearing, however, he did not offer any evidence as to the specific medications or dosages that he took on the day of his plea.  Also, plea counsel testified that, during the course of his represented of Garren, he did not notice any mental health issues that he thought would indicate the need for a psychological evaluation. Garren testified at the hearing that he did not understand or have any recollection of the plea proceeding. The Court noted that was the “only evidence” Garren offered in support of his claim his plea was affected by medications.

The Court found the record did not contain any evidence to show that trial counsel should have ordered a competency evaluation. Counsel claimed he thought he was competent based on his interactions with Garren.  Since Garren didn’t put forth any evidence showing otherwise, the PCR court erred in finding counsel was deficient.  But also, Garren fails on the prejudice prong. He did not present any evidence to show a reasonable probability that he would have been found incompetent to enter a guilty plea had a competency evaluation been conducted.  Without any proof that Garren even has mental health issues, any claim of prejudice was purely speculative (Tip:  if raising a competency/ mental health issue, you must have some sort of psychological evaluation performed so you can enter it into evidence at the PCR hearing to show there really is an issue here that trial counsel should have spotted).

If a PCR applicant claims his guilty plea is involuntary due to the influence of medication, he must show “that his mental facilities were so impaired by drugs when he pleaded that he was incapable of full understanding and appreciation of the charges against him, of comprehending his constitutional rights, and of realizing the consequences of his plea.” United States v. Truglio, 493 F.2d 574, 578 (4thCir. 1974).  A PCR court must consider “objective data” about the nature and effect of the medication the defendant had taken and evaluate whether such medication “had the capability to produce a sufficient effect on his mental faculties to render him incompetent to enter a guilty plea.” United States v. Damon, 191 F.3d 561, 565 (4thCir. 1999). “The dispositive feature of this inquiry is whether the medication is in fact causing such an impairment.”  United States v. Caramadre, 807 F.3d 359, 368 (1stCir. 2015).

The Court noted there was nothing in the record to show that Garren was under the influence of drugs or otherwise not aware of what was happening at the time of his plea. In fact, he affirmatively told the plea court, when asked, that he was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol.  Also, he did not appear to be under the influence. The Court noted the only evidence Garren offered was his own testimony.  The Court found this testimony alone was insufficient to establish that his guilty plea was entered involuntarily.

As I read this, the problem here is a complete lack of proof.  PCR counsel attempted to raise a mental health issue, but apparently didn’t secure any mental health records, or have his client evaluated. PCR counsel cannot just “wing it” by raising these issues without doing the necessary groundwork, and it shows in this case. It seems pretty clear from this opinion that Garren does have some mental health issues. Trial counsel should have had his client evaluated, as Justice Few noted in his concurrence (but agreeing with the majority’s prong-two analysis). Also, counsel could have secured the records from the detention center to show what “mystery” medications Garren had taken on the day of his plea. At the very least, trial counsel could have used this information to, perhaps use to mitigate Garren’s sentence or, better yet, to help him receive some treatment.  Justice James concurred in part, and dissented in part. He would have found that Garren’s testimony was sufficient to support the PCR court’s finding that Garren’s plea was involuntary.

So, important case to be aware of if you are attempting to raise some sort of mental health issue in PCR. You will need more than just your testimony to win it.