Reversing a guilty plea is a legal issue that is complex and complicated. It is not uncommon for someone who has plead guilty to a crime to regret it later, and attempt to have it reversed. In 2018, one of the most notable examples of this was an Idaho senator seeking to reverse a guilty plea.

Senator Larry Craig plead guilty to a disorderly conduct accusation and later attempted to have it reversed. Senator Craig’s case was unsuccessful, largely due to the “principle of finality.” The principle of finality is a rule that a court will not review an action until it is final.

This principle essentially prevents defendants from taking back their plea, once they have plead guilty to a crime and have signed plea papers stating as much. Reversal of final judgment is not easy; if it were, more defendants would attempt it.

Are there Different Types of Guilty Plea Reversal?

There are essentially two types of sentence withdrawals: pre-sentence withdrawal and post-sentence withdrawal. Pre-sentence withdrawal involves the defendant withdrawing a guilty plea before the judge has accepted it. Additionally, defendants may get out of their plea deal if they have pleaded, but have not yet been sentenced.

Post-sentence withdrawal is the more difficult course of action between the two. Some plea deals have the requirement that the defendant waives their right to an appeal. Obviously, a guilty plea reversal under these circumstances is highly unlikely. In a post-sentence withdrawal scenario, a judge will only allow the plea withdrawal if it is absolutely necessary in order to avoid an obvious injustice.

There are also conditional pleas, or situations in which the defendant’s right to have an appeals court determine an adverse trial court ruling is reserved. Some examples of this would be if evidence against the defendant was obtained illegally, or if the law creating the crime the defendant is being accused of is unconstitutional.

Why Would You Want to Reverse a Guilty Plea?

Despite the difficulty involved with reversing a guilty plea, there are a few reasonable arguments to made for the reversal. Most often, defendants will choose to pursue a reversal because of “buyer’s remorse,” or believing that they received an objectively bad deal.

Several states have laws in place that allow for a plea reversal in order to ensure that the defendant is not wrongly convicted, and is not denied the right to have a jury trial. For example, Minnesota law allows a plea withdrawal upon a “timely motion,” and proof of “manifest injustice” (unfairness that is obvious, direct, and observable). The defendant is still allowed to move to reverse without appealing, even after a final judgment has been entered and a sentence imposed.

Another reason for reversing a guilty plea falls on the judges overseeing the case. Judges are required to set aside guilty pleas if there is any indication that the defendant is not guilty, or that the defendant did not fully understand the charges or the consequences of pleading guilty.

This is true even if the defendant did not put in a request for a reversal. Judges are also expected to take into consideration the amount of time between the plea and the withdrawal attempt.

One major reason for attempting reversal of a guilty plea is proving injustice. As previously mentioned, a reversal request may be granted if evidence against a defendant was found to be obtained illegally.

Another example of this is the defendant claiming that the arrest procedures were improper, such as the arresting officer failing to read the defendant their rights. Defendants may claim that they were not of sound mind when they initially signed the plea bargain, or that they were otherwise incapacitated.

Ineffective representation is another reason to pursue a reversal. If a defendant feels their attorney did not act in good faith, did not accurately and fairly represent them, or was otherwise ineffective AND was the reason for the defendant pleading guilty, then the judge overseeing the case should take that into consideration when coming to a decision regarding the plea reversal.

What Situations Have the Most Reversals of a Guilty Plea?

There are specific situations in which a judge is, generally, supposed to allow for plea withdrawal. Some of these situations include:

  • Duress and Undue Influence: The defendant may argue that they were under duress, undue influence, or in a panic when they agreed to sign the plea bargain. There may have been threats of severe consequences to pleading not guilty;
  • An “Unintelligent” Plead: A defendant may have not “intelligently” plead, whether due to being under the influence of alcohol or psychological challenges;
  • Denial of Constitutional Rights: If the defendant was denied certain constitutional rights, such as the right to counsel, a judge should allow for a guilty plea reversal; or
  • New Evidence: A plea reversal should be allowed if new evidence comes to light; DNA analysis is a good example.

Do I Need an Attorney If I Want to Reverse My Guilty Plea?

If you pleaded guilty to a crime and would like to pursue a reversal, you will absolutely need to consult a criminal defense attorney. As you can see, the process for a reversal is difficult and consists of several specific stipulations.

An experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney will help you explore your options, as well as represent you in court if necessary. Additionally, after a plea is reversed with the court’s permission, the case generally goes back to square one, or the point before the original plea. A criminal defense attorney will help you with this long and complex process.