Clients sometimes wish to withdraw guilty pleas. This article discusses the circumstances under which a criminal defendant may do so.
In order to withdraw a guilty plea, an individual must file a motion to vacate the plea. If successful, the motion to vacate a guilty plea will not result in the charge being dismissed. Instead, the conviction will be vacated and the case restored to the court's calendar. The defendant can then either enter another plea (perhaps with better sentencing prospects) or proceed to trial.
Defendants have no absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea. The decision rests firmly within the sound discretion of the judge who took the original plea, who will decide to grant or deny the motion after a hearing.
In State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145 (2009), the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that, when reviewing requests to withdraw guilty pleas, judges should consider the following factors:
- Whether there is a "colorable" (or believable) claim of innocence. This factor addresses the court's core concern in convicting the innocent.
- The nature and strength of the reasons for withdrawal
- Whether the original plea deal was just, and
- Whether allowing the request would result in unfair prejudice to the state or an unjust advantage to the accused.
When deciding whether the defendant has presented a colorable claim of defense, the Supreme Court has held that, although a bare assertion of innocence is not enough, the court need not hold a "mini-trial" to determine if the innocence claim is colorable. Instead, the defendant must simply present specific, credible facts. Courts have recognized the following circumstances as giving rise to a valid reason for plea withdrawal; they include situations when the defendant did not:
- voluntarily enter into the plea
- have a lawyer
- understand the charges against him
- know his constitutional rights, such as the right to a jury trial or the right to counsel
- know important consequences of the plea, such as professional licensing suspension or revocation and the plea’s impact on immigration status, and
- have competent assistance of counsel.
If the motion to vacate is made after sentencing, a New Jersey court may permit withdrawal of a guilty plea to correct a "manifest injustice," a more stringent standard.
Randolph Wolf, Esq. has been practicing criminal law in New Jersey for over twenty five years.