Sometimes a defendant may accept a plea bargain and then change their mind, especially if they receive a harsh sentence. They may be able to withdraw their guilty plea, depending on the state and the stage at which they decide to withdraw it. This usually means that the case will be reset to the stage before the plea bargain was reached. The prosecutor and the defense can negotiate a new plea, or the case can move forward to trial. Sometimes the judge will dismiss the charges if the defendant withdraws their plea based on new evidence of their innocence.
A judge is more likely to accept a guilty plea withdrawal in the earlier stages of a case or soon after the plea was made.
If a judge has not yet accepted a guilty plea, the defendant likely can withdraw the plea. They also may be able to withdraw a plea if the judge has not yet sentenced them. However, a defendant may face difficulties in withdrawing a plea once the judge has sentenced them. Withdrawing a plea at this stage may require showing that allowing the conviction to stand would result in a clear injustice. A judge may deny a request to withdraw a plea if it would harm the prosecution’s ability to prove its case or if the defendant agreed to waive the right to an appeal.
Factors to Consider in Allowing Withdrawal
Judges are likely to allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea if they ask to withdraw it soon after the plea was made. If the defendant did not have legal counsel when they made the plea, a judge may look more favorably on their request. A judge must set aside a guilty plea if the circumstances suggest that the defendant is innocent or did not understand the consequences of the guilty plea. This is true regardless of whether the defendant asks to withdraw the plea.
Reasons for Withdrawal
Many of the most common reasons to withdraw a guilty plea involve incompetence or misconduct by the defendant’s lawyer. If the lawyer’s ineffective assistance was the reason for the guilty plea, a judge generally will allow the defendant to withdraw the plea. Failing to investigate a case, failing to introduce exonerating evidence, or failing to tell the defendant about the consequences of pleading guilty are common examples of ineffective assistance by lawyers. Entering a guilty plea without the defendant’s consent is also a strong reason to withdraw the plea. (However, disappointment with the lawyer’s efforts does not justify withdrawing a plea.)
Another situation in which the judge may allow a defendant to withdraw their plea is when they were not psychologically competent to plead guilty. This might involve a mental health condition or substance abuse. The defendant also might be able to withdraw a plea if the judge agrees that they have a strong case at trial or if new evidence supports their innocence. Any manipulation of the defendant or threats by the prosecution should justify withdrawing the plea.
If there were constitutional problems with the process, such as if the defendant was not allowed to exercise their right to counsel, the judge probably will allow the defendant to withdraw the guilty plea. In some cases, when a judge gets deeply involved in plea negotiations, the risk of impropriety may justify withdrawing the plea if the defendant requests.