EATON — A Darke County man who pleaded guilty to drug charges in January 2020 appeared for a hearing to determine whether that plea can now be withdrawn in Preble County Common Pleas Court Tuesday, Aug. 4. Judge Stephen R. Bruns presided.
Ronald V. Neeley, 45, of Ansonia, asked to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of aggravated possession of drugs during an earlier court appearance on Wednesday, May 20, stating his former court-appointed attorney, Kirsten Knight, failed to provide him with adequate counsel.
Neeley testified that he was unable to consult with Knight until the day of his plea hearing, at which point she advised him to plead guilty; that repeated calls to Knight’s office had not been returned; that she had failed to present him with a copy of an indictment listing the charges against him; and that she failed to apprise him of the nature of the evidence held by the prosecution in his case.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed by the Preble County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Neeley was pulled over by Eaton Police in Sept. 2019 and found to be in possession of approximately 3.5 grams of methamphetamine. The duration of that traffic stop was the primary point of contention during Tuesday’s hearing, with Neeley’s current attorney, Randall Braeden, citing laws that limit the amount of time permitted to elapse before a search of a suspect’s vehicle can be conducted.
Prosecuting Attorney Martin Votel took issue with Braeden’s argument, claiming that Neeley’s nervous behavior during the stop and the fact that his vehicle was seen leaving a known drug house constituted probable cause that should have empowered the officers to extend the duration of the stop.
Braeden also cross-examined Knight on the stand, asking whether the attorney had reviewed dash cam footage, body cam footage, or dispatch logs from the Eaton Police Dept. in order to determine the duration of the stop. Knight said she “believed” she had requested that documentation, but never received it, leading her to assume that it did not exist.
Knight also challenged Neeley’s assertion they had not consulted prior to his plea hearing, stating they had spoken on the phone on Sept. 17 and Oct. 10 of 2019, and that Knight had spoken with Neeley’s girlfriend (who was empowered to speak with her on his behalf) via telephone on at least two other occasions.
Knight explained that her law office is located in Dayton, which makes it more convenient for some of her Darke and Preble County clients to speak with her on the phone.
Finally, Knight said she advised Neeley to plead guilty, and not to move forward with a motion to suppress hearing based on the supposed length of the traffic stop, based on information from police reports.
“I explained that what the police did, even though he didn’t agree with it, was legal, and that I thought the court would see it the same way,” Knight said. Had Neeley chosen to go to trial and been convicted, Knight said, he could have faced up to 36 months in prison.
During closing arguments, Braeden asserted that Knight “relied on the police report, which did not provide time or details” of the traffic stop, when advising Neeley, and that as a result she “did not have the information in hand to give him the advice he needed.” He also questioned Knight’s choice to conduct legal consultations exclusively over the phone.
“It’s imperative to have face-to-face meetings with your client,” Braeden argued.
Prosecutor Votel, meanwhile, reiterated his comments from the May 20 hearing, citing the questioning to which every defendant is subjected by the judge, in open court, before entering a guilty plea. This would have given Neeley every opportunity to inform the judge he had not read the indictment or was dissatisfied with the actions of his defense.
“A mere change of heart is not sufficient grounds to withdraw a plea,” Votel said.
Judge Bruns told both parties that he would render a written decision in the case.
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook or Instagram @mproperenglish