A plea court is not required to advise a defendant that he may be subject to the Sex Offender Management and Treatment Act (SOMTA), a 2007 law that permits the civil confinement of sex offenders after the completion of their prison terms. In People v. Harnett (Ct. App. 2/10/2011) (Smith, J.) (5-2), the Court of Appeals concluded that SOMTA is a collateral, rather than a direct, consequence of a guilty plea and, therefore, a defendant need not understand the possibility of SOMTA commitment before he pleads guilty. Like SORA, which the Court of Appeals held was collateral in People v. Gravino, SOMTA is
is not a penal statute designed to punish a past crime, but a remedial one designed to prevent a future crime (see Gravino, 14 NY3d at 556); with SOMTA, as with SORA, important decisions and recommendations must be made, after the time of the guilty plea, by administrative agencies not under the court's control (see id.); and with SOMTA, even more than with SORA, the consequences of a defendant's plea are far from automatic. Indeed, experience to date indicates that the large majority of people who are "detained sex offenders" as SOMTA defines the term will suffer no consequences from that designation at all.
The court rejected a fairness argument that the defense raised based on a New Jersey case, State v. Bellamy, 835 A.2d 1231 (2003). But the court noted that Bellamy involved an unusual set of facts. The defendant pleaded after he had already served most of his sentence. He was due to be released in two months under the guilty plea. The state then commenced civil commitment proceedings a week before his release date. In Bellamy, the appellate court remanded for a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. The New York Court of Appeals agreed that the facts of Bellamy would probably require a finding of involuntariness, which is why it strongly encouraged trial courts to explain the possible SOMTA consequences of a guilty plea to defendants. Here, there was no evidence that the defendant's case was like the extreme one of Bellamy.
Judge Ciparick, writing for herself and Judge Jones, dissented. The dissent drew a distinction between SORA and SOMTA in that the latter requires confinement. "I believe a defendant cannot be said to knowingly and voluntarily forego his right to trial if he does not know the full extent of confinement that might result from his conviction." (LC)