Reversal of a Guilty Plea

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 What is a Guilty Plea?

In a criminal proceeding, a guilty plea may be part of a plea bargain. A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense wherein the prosecution makes an offer to reduce some of the charges against the defendant to or to recommend a certain sentence to the court in exchange for a guilty plea or a plea of no contest from the defendant.

The prosecutor is the individual who offers a defendant a plea bargain. It is up to a defendant to accept the plea bargain or to reject the plea bargain and to send the case to trial. 

Once a defendant rejects the plea bargain, the defendant is not permitted to return to that plea bargain, even if the result is a harsher penalty than what is offered. In other words, unless the prosecution offers the same plea deal a second time, the defendant must face the consequences of rejecting the plea bargain.

A defendant is required to plead guilty to a crime knowingly and voluntarily. Prior to accepting a defendant’s plea bargain, the court must also ensure that the defendant is aware of their right to a trial and the consequences of waiving that right.

Can a Guilty Plea be Reversed?

Reversing a guilty plea is a legal issue which is very complicated. It is not uncommon for a defendant who pleaded guilty to a crime to later regret that plea and attempt to have it reversed.

One of the most notable examples of a defendant attempting to reverse a guilty plea was in 2018 when an Idaho senator was seeking to have a guilty plea reversed. Senator Larry Craig pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge and later attempted to have that plea reversed.

The case was unsuccessful, largely because of the principle of finality. This principle is a rule that a court will not review an action until it is final.

The principle of finality essentially prevents a defendant from retracting their guilty plea once they have pleaded guilty to a crime and have signed the paperwork which includes the plea. The reversal of a final judgment is not easy to obtain, otherwise more defendants would attempt to obtain one.

Are there Different Types of Guilty Plea Reversals?

Essentially, there are two types of sentence withdrawals, a pre-sentence withdrawal and a post-sentence withdrawal. A pre-sentence withdrawal occurs when the defendant withdraws their guilty plea prior to the court accepting it.

In addition, a defendant may be able to get out of a plea deal if they have entered a plea but have not yet been sentenced. A post-sentence withdrawal, on the other hand, is the more difficult of the two. 

Some plea deals include a requirement where a defendant waives their right to an appeal. A guilty plea reversal under these circumstances is not likely. In the case of a post-sentence withdrawal, the court will only permit the plea to be withdrawn if it is necessary to avoid an obvious injustice. 

There are situations in which a defendant’s right to have a court of appeals determine an adverse trial court ruling is reserved. Some examples of these types of situations would include if evidence against a defendant was illegally obtained or if the law which created the crime that the defendant is being accused of is unconstitutional.

Why Would You Want to Reverse a Guilty Plea?

Although reversing a guilty plea may be difficult, there are some instances and reasonable arguments which may be made for a reversal. In most instances, a defendant will choose to pursue a reversal due to buyer’s remorse, or a belief that the defendant received a bad deal.

There are several states which have laws in place that allow for a plea reversal in order to ensure that a defendant is not wrongly convicted and that the defendant is not denied their right to a jury trial. For example, in Minnesota, a defendant may be granted a plea withdrawal upon a timely motion as well as a proof of manifest injustice. Manifest justice includes unfairness which is:

  • Obvious;
  • Direct; and
  • Observable.

A defendant is permitted to move to reverse the plea without an appeal. This may be done even after a final judgment has been entered and a sentence has been imposed. 

Another reason a guilty plea may be reversed involves the judge who oversees the case. A judge is required to set aside a guilty plea if there is any indication that a defendant is not guilty or that a defendant did not fully understand the charges against them or the consequences of entering a guilty plea.

This applies even if a defendant did not request the reversal of the guilty plea. A judge is also expected to take into consideration the amount of time that elapsed between the guilty plea and the attempt to withdraw the plea.

Proving injustice is also a major reason to attempt to reverse a guilty plea. As noted above, a reversal request may be granted if evidence against the defendant was found to be illegally obtained.

A similar example may occur when a defendant claims that the arrest procedures were improper. This may include the arresting officer failing to read the defendant their Miranda rights. A defendant may also claim that they were not of sound mind at the time they initially signed the plea bargain, or that they were otherwise incapacitated.

Another reason for a defendant to pursue a reversal is ineffective representation. If the defendant feels their attorney did not act in good faith, did not fairly and accurately represent them, or were otherwise ineffective, and that was the reason the defendant pleaded guilty, the court will take those issues into consideration when determining whether or not to reverse a guilty plea. 

What Situations Have the Most Reversals of a Guilty Plea?

There are specific situations in which a court is, in general, supposed to allow a withdrawal of a guilty plea. These situations include:

  • Duress and undue influence;
  • An unintelligent plea;
  • A denial of constitutional rights; or
  • New evidence.

A defendant may argue that they were subject to undue influence, under duress, or in a panic when they agreed to sign the plea bargain. The defendant may have faced threats of severe consequences if they did not plead guilty.

An unintelligent plea means that the defendant may not have pleaded intelligently. This may have been due to being under the influence of alcohol or due to psychological challenges.

A defendant may also claim a denial of their constitutional rights. If they were denied certain rights, including the right to counsel, the court should permit a guilty plea reversal.

A plea reversal should also be permitted if there is new evidence which comes to light. A common example of this is a DNA analysis which is performed at a later time and provides evidence of innocence.

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

It is important to have the assistance of a criminal defense attorney for any guilty plea reversal issues you may have. If you plead guilty to a crime and wish to have your plea reversed, your attorney can assist you through a difficult process which has several specific stipulations.

Your attorney will review your case and advise you of your options, as well as the possible outcomes. Your attorney will also represent you any time you have to appear in court. Once a guilty plea is reversed by the court, the case typically reverts back to square one, to the point prior to the original plea. 


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