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Pennsylvania Court Reiterates Right of Defendant to Withdraw Guilty Plea

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While most people charged with a criminal offense have the constitutional right to proceed to a trial, the vast majority of cases are resolved through plea agreements that are reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys. The agreements require the client to plead guilty to certain offenses in exchange for a dismissal of other charges, and some plea agreements also include a recommendation from the district attorney to the judge that a specific sentence be imposed.

Withdrawal of Guilty Plea in Pennsylvania

After agreements are reached and partially entered into, meaning the client has pleaded guilty, there are times that the client gets "cold feet" and wants to withdraw his guilty plea. A critical factor is whether the criminal defendant wants to withdraw his guilty plea before or after sentencing. In the recent case considered by the Superior Court, captioned Commonwealth v. Unangst, the defendant had sought a withdrawal prior to sentencing. Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 591 gives the judge discretion to allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea prior to sentencing, but the case law on the issue is more supportive of the defendant. In Commonwealth v. Kirsch, 930 A.2d 1282 (Pa. Super. 2007), the Court stated that a defendant should be permitted to withdraw his plea for "any fair and just reason" as long as there is no substantial prejudice to the prosecution. Pennsylvania courts have stated that a fair and just reason is an assertion of innocence.

In the Unangst case, the defendant had entered guilty pleas to charges of Theft and Recklessly Endangering Another Person in exchange for a dismissal of felony  defendant filed a written motion to withdrawal his guilty plea, but, regrettably, the man showed up late for the scheduled hearing on his motion. In his absence, the judge denied the withdrawal request. At sentencing, the man renewed his request, but the judge again denied the request and sentenced the man.

On appeal, the Superior Court actually agreed that the trial court was correct to deny the defendant's request when he failed to appear at the hearing on time. However, the Superior Court ultimately held that the sentencing judge was wrong for not granting the motion as it was written because the man asserted his innocence, and the prosecution never argued that it was prejudiced by granting the request. Because the defendant had a fair and just reason for the withdrawal of his guilty plea and the prosecution was not prejudiced, the Superior Court held that the trial judge had erred in denying the request. The appellate court reiterated that trial judges should not overly analyze an assertion of innocence and should limit the review to whether or not the assertion is credible.

Mifflin County Rape Case

A few years ago, I was retained to provide representation for a Lewistown  man that had been charged in a Mifflin County Rape case. Prior to my involvement, the man pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but the man told me that he wished to withdrawal his guilty plea and proceed to trial. The Mifflin County judge followed the law discussed above, permitted my client to withdraw his guilty plea. The client had always denied that he had sex with the alleged victim, and there was no physical or scientific evidence to support the victim's claim. The case proceeded to a jury trial, and the Lewistown jury found my client not guilty on all counts.

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