Withdrawing a Guilty Plea After Sentencing

Most criminal cases result in the defendant entering a guilty plea. Withdrawing a guilty plea after sentencing is rare, but certain circumstances allow it. For example, if new evidence arises after someone enters a plea agreement, they may request to withdraw.

This article briefly summarizes guilty pleas and their role in criminal law. It then covers when a defendant may withdraw their guilty plea.

Guilty Pleas and Sentencing: The Basics

The vast majority of criminal cases end in either a guilty plea or a no contest (nolo contendere) plea. A guilty plea is an agreement between the prosecution and the criminal defendant. A criminal defendant often agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

Defendants enter guilty pleas for a variety of reasons. Some criminal defendants may enter a guilty plea for purely strategic reasons unrelated to actual guilt. Reasons a person may enter a plea bargain include the following:

  • The government may have a strong case, and the defendant believes their chances of prevailing at trial are slim
  • The defendant's decision to plead guilty resulted from the ineffective assistance of counsel or faulty legal advice
  • The defendant was confused because their defense counsel was not present at the arraignment hearing
  • The defendant knows they are guilty, and entering a guilty plea may result in a more lenient sentence

Before sentencing, courts generally allow defendants to withdraw a guilty plea for any "fair and just reason," especially if the judge has not yet accepted the plea or rejects a negotiated plea deal. After sentencing, it is much more difficult to withdraw guilty or no contest pleas. A defendant may withdraw a guilty or no contest plea after sentencing "only on direct appeal or collateral attack," according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 11).

When You May Withdraw a Guilty Plea After Sentencing

After a judge sentences a defendant who pleaded guilty, courts typically do not allow a plea withdrawal unless there is manifest injustice involved. If made promptly, courts generally allow plea withdrawals after sentencing for proper conditions, some of which include:  

  • The defendant did not receive the effective assistance of legal counsel 
  • The defendant or their authorized representative did not enter the plea on their behalf
  • The defendant did not make the plea voluntarily
  • The defendant entered the plea without knowledge of their criminal charges or potential sentence
  • The defendant did not receive the concessions agreed to in the plea deal
  • The defendant entered a guilty plea under the condition that the defendant could withdraw it if the court rejected the plea's conditions
  • The defendant entered a guilty plea due to promises or threats made off the record, assuming the defendant can prove it

It's not enough for a defendant to claim dissatisfaction with the outcome of the sentencing hearing. Even without the defendant's request, a judge must set aside a guilty plea when there is strong evidence of the defendant's innocence. For example, new DNA evidence may allow a defendant to withdraw from the plea.

Questions About How To Withdraw Pleas? Ask an Attorney

Strategy matters when you are defending against criminal charges. Consider consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you need legal representation. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can provide legal advice regarding the following:

If you are facing criminal charges, do not delay in contacting a criminal defense lawyer.

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