In criminal cases in the United States, a defendant can generally seek to withdraw a guilty plea after sentencing by filing a motion to withdraw the plea and demonstrating good cause therefore. If the judge denies the motion, the defendant may be able to appeal the judge’s decision.
Under California criminal law, a defendant can also seek to withdraw a plea (after sentencing) by means of:
- a writ of habeus corpus petition, per Penal Code 1473 PC, or
- the state’s expungement process, per Penal Code 1203.4 PC.
While there are some cases in which a defendant may wish to withdraw a plea deal, there are still some good reasons for why a defendant should explore plea bargaining. Some of these are:
- the accused avoids the uncertainty of a jury trial,
- the prosecutor may reduce charges as part of plea negotiations (e.g., reducing a felony to a misdemeanor charge), and
- a plea agreement often results in favorable sentences.
How can a person withdraw a guilty plea after sentencing?
Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the main way a defendant can withdraw a guilty plea, or a plea of no contest, after a judge has entered a sentence is by “collateral attack.”1
“Collateral attack” means that the defendant must show that the plea resulted in some type of injustice. Courts will generally allow a defendant to contest pleas, or withdrawal them, for some of the following reasons:
- the defendant, or his/her defense counsel, never entered the plea,
- the accused was denied certain constitutional rights in entering the deal (for example, the defendant asserts ineffective assistance of counsel),
- the accused did not enter the plea bargain voluntarily or did not understand the consequences of the plea, and
- the defendant made the deal without knowing the criminal charges filed or the sentence imposed by the plea.
If a judge denies a defendant’s motion to withdraw, then he/she could challenge the court’s decision by means of a direct appeal.
“Direct appeal” refers to the defendant asking that an appellate court (e.g., a state criminal appeals court or the Supreme Court) review the decision of the trial court. If the appellate court finds significant legal issues that were handled erroneously, it may:
- refer the case back to the trial court,
- adjust the sentence rendered, or
- overturn a conviction.
Note that an accused cannot withdraw a plea simply because he/she:
- suffered from buyer’s remorse, or
- was dissatisfied with the details of the plea agreement.
How does a defendant withdraw a guilty plea post-conviction, but pre-sentence?
If a court accepts a plea, but has not imposed a sentence, then a defendant can withdraw from the plea if he/she shows a fair and just reason for the withdrawal.1
A showing of a “fair and just reason” is similar to a collateral attack if sentencing has already taken place.
A court will typically agree to the withdrawal if:
- there is good cause for the withdrawal (e.g., the plea would result in a clear injustice),
- the defendant entered a plea, or conducted plea negotiations, without a criminal defense attorney,
- new evidence, or unique sensitive information, arises that shows the defendant’s innocence, and
- the defendant did not understand the consequences of a plea of guilty.
What is the law in California?
If a guilty plea was entered in a California criminal case, but no sentence has taken place, then the defendant can seek withdrawal by filing a motion to withdraw, per Penal Code 1018 PC. This statute allows an accused to back out of a deal upon a showing of good cause.6
Examples of good cause include:
- the defendant not having a criminal defense attorney or defense counsel at the time the plea was made,
- the accused not being aware of the consequences of the deal,7
- the defendant getting coerced into a plea bargain,
- a bargain violating a defendant’s rights, and
- the defense counsel being incompetent.
If sentencing has taken place, though, a defendant can still try to withdraw from a guilty plea. An accused does this by means of:
- a writ of habeus corpus petition, per PC 1473, or
- the state’s expungement process, per PC 1203.4 PC.
Some reasons for a court to grant a writ of habeus corpus petition are:
- the criminal law under which the defendant was charged and convicted was unconstitutional,
- the defendant was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel,
- there was an instance of prosecutorial misconduct,
- the accused was not competent to stand trial.
With regards to an expungement, a person can file this petition after he/she successfully completes either:
- a county jail term, or
The petition asks the court to:
- allow the defendant to withdraw any plea of guilty or no contest,
- reenter a plea of not guilty, and
- dismiss the case.
If granted, the expungement releases an individual from the negative consequences of a conviction.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of a guilty plea?
There are certain advantages and disadvantages for a defendant to plead guilty to a criminal charge.
Some advantageous to enter a deal are:
- the defendant avoids the expense and uncertainty of trial,
- a plea may involve a reduction in charges, and
- a plea ensures the defendant avoids the maximum sentence for the crime(s) charged.
The main disadvantage of a plea is that it means the defendant waives his/her right to a trial. By accepting a deal, the defendant loses the possibility of a “not guilty” verdict at trial that could exonerate him/her completely of a crime.
A guilty plea is a serious matter and a defendant should only enter one after consulting with a criminal defense lawyer or a law firm specializing in criminal law.
- Fed.R.Crim.Pro. 11e.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition. See also Travis v. Travis’ Estate, 334 P.2d 508 (1959).
- Fed.R.Crim.Pro. 11d.
- See same.
- See, e.g., Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971).
- California Penal Code 1018 PC.
- See, e.g., People v. Superior Court (Giron) (1974) 11 Cal.3d 793.
- See, e.g., People v. Sandoval (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 111.
- See, e.g., People v. Smith (1993) 6 Cal.4th 684.
- In re Davis, (1966) 242 Cal.App.2d 645.
- People v. Kasim, (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 1360.
- In re Dennis, (1959) 51 Cal.2d 666.
- California Penal Code 1203.4 PC