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Teen's attorney asks to withdraw plea in cyclist's death

The attorney for a teenager who pled guilty last week in the 2009 death of a Park Rapids motorcyclist has filed a motion to withdraw his client's plea, saying she did not deserve a week in jail.

Brittany Ann Sayler, 19, pled guilty to failing to yield the right-of-way at the intersection of Hubbard County Roads 6 and 15. Her vehicle collided with a motorcycle driven by 42-year-old John Kisner. He died at the scene. A charge of careless driving was dismissed against Sayler, a 2009 Park Rapids Area High School graduate.

Although both prosecutor Don Dearstyne and Sayler's attorney, Michael Hughes of Bemidji, had recommended 90 days stayed, judges have the discretion to reject plea bargains in the interest of justice.

But the question of whether a judge can modify a plea agreement from the bench is at the heart of the motion. It is relatively rare for judges to jettison plea bargains.

Judge Robert Tiffany didn't reject the plea outright, but did sentence Sayler to seven days in jail.

Tiffany told her he wanted to send a message that driving is a privilege that should be taken seriously. Sayler was previously convicted in a 2007 DWI case over which Tiffany presided.

Monday, Hughes filed a two-pronged motion, asking Tiffany to reconsider the jail sentence, or, in the alternative, asking that Sayler be allowed to withdraw her plea and go to trial.

He maintained modifying the plea agreement was tantamount to a rejection, giving Salyer the right to withdraw her plea and go to trial.

Even though Hughes maintains the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction at trial, "Ms. Sayler felt it was more important to put the matter behind her, seeking some sort of closure for herself and the family of the victim, and thus accepted the terms of the plea agreement," Hughes' brief stated.

A jury trial "would present a significant hardship for everyone involved," the brief stated.

Hughes maintained Tiffany erred when he modified the agreement. Plea deals are an all-or-nothing proposition, his brief posits.

"My brief is going to indicate the judge followed the essence of the plea agreement, which was to dismiss Count 1 (the careless driving charge) and plead to the lesser included offense, Count 2 (the failure to yield charge), with the recommendation to the court as to a disposition," said Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne. "The court is free to follow the recommendation or not."

Hughes said Sayler was induced to plead guilty by the promise of no jail time and relied on that promise.

In court Tiffany said plea agreements are recommendations only; judges are not bound by them.

Dearstyne said courts have held that two standards must be present for defendants to withdraw their guilty pleas - manifest injustice and mistakes of fact.

An infamous 2007 Minnesota case highlighted the issue of how binding a plea agreement is. Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig sought to withdraw a guilty plea he entered in an airport bathroom solicitation case, maintaining he hadn't understood the implications of what he pled to and the case hadn't been fully investigated before he was charged.

A Hennepin County district judge ruled against him. Then a three-judge appeals panel applied the manifest injustice standard in determining Craig's plea was entered into freely and voluntarily.

No manifest injustice would occur if his guilty plea were allowed to stand, the court ruled in rejecting Craig's second request to withdraw his plea.

Another element of plea agreements is whether the victims have been consulted and have agreed to the terms. The Kisner family did not agree and asked Tiffany to sentence Sayler to the maximum 90 days in jail.

Hughes' motion did not address this issue.

"The Minnesota Supreme Court has held where it's a recommendation to the court, simply because the court doesn't follow that, there's not grounds to withdraw the plea," Dearstyne said, paraphrasing his brief.

Tiffany likely will take the brief under advisement and issue a ruling sometime in the future.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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