The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Norton. This decision reaffirms the Court’s holding in the previous case of Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo that a bare assertion of innocence may not be enough to justify withdrawing even a pre-sentence guilty plea. This is true even where there are undisputed issues with the complainant’s credibility. This decision is significant because it will make it harder for a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea once it has been accepted by the court.
Commonwealth v. Norton
In December 2012, a criminal complaint was filed against the defendant charging him with five counts of indecent assault and one count of corruption of minors. According to the complaint and the accompanying affidavit of probable cause, on at least five occasions from September 2008 through April 2012, the defendant sexually assaulted his paramour’s granddaughter. The complainant was four years old when this abuse began.
On February 27, 2013, a preliminary hearing occurred where the complainant and a Corporal from the Pennsylvania State Police testified. Following the hearing, the magisterial district justice dismissed three counts of indecent assault, but the judge held the defendant for court on the remaining charges. Once the case reached the Court of Common Pleas, the defendant filed an omnibus pretrial motion in which he sought an order to preclude the Commonwealth from presenting evidence at trial that the defendant allegedly abused his now-adult daughter when she was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Specifically, the Commonwealth sought to introduce a 1996 statement signed by the defendant in which he admitted to sexually abusing his daughter.
The trial court held a hearing on the defendant’s pretrial motion at which his daughter testified regarding the abuse the defendant allegedly perpetrated on her. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion and held that this evidence was admissible as a relevant prior bad act under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 404(b). The court then scheduled the defendant for trial.
When the trial date arrived, however, the defense and the Commonwealth informed the trial court that they had reached a plea agreement. Specifically, the defendant agreed to plead no contest to one count each of indecent assault and corruption of a minor charge in exchange for an aggregate term of imprisonment of two to six years. The defendant’s attorney conducted a plea colloquy which was supplemented by questioning by the district attorney regarding the fact that the defendant’s plea would require him to be assessed for purposes of determining whether he should be classified as a sexually violent predator. The parties also submitted to the court the defendant’s written plea colloquy. The trial court accepted the plea agreement and his sentencing was scheduled for May 7, 2015.
On March 23, 2015, the defendant filed a motion to withdraw his plea. In that motion, the defendant asserted his innocence and proclaimed that he could not live with himself for taking a plea under the circumstances. The trial court then held a hearing concerning this motion to withdraw the guilty plea. At that hearing, the defendant reiterated that he wanted to withdraw his plea because he was innocent of the crimes to which he pleaded no contest and he could not live with himself for entering this plea.
Pennsylvania Law on Withdrawing Guilty Pleas
At the time of this hearing, the prevailing law in Pennsylvania required a trial court to grant a pre-sentence motion to withdraw a plea when the withdrawal of the plea was based on nothing more than a defendant’s bare assertion of innocence. However, this issue of whether a defendant could withdraw his plea based solely on a defendant’s assertion of innocence was before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo. Nonetheless, because Carrasquillo had not been decided yet, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion and allowed him to withdraw his plea, with the caveat that the law could change.
On June 5, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Carrasquillo that a defendant does not have an absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea. Instead, a trial court has discretion in determining whether a withdrawal request should be granted. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that this request should be administered liberally in favor of the accused and that any demonstration by a defendant of a fair-and-just reason will suffice to support a grant of a motion, unless withdrawal would cause substantial prejudice to the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court further opined that a defendant’s claim of innocence must be at least plausible to demonstrate, in and of itself, a fair and just reason for pre-sentence withdrawal of a plea. In other words, the proper inquiry on consideration of such a withdrawal motion is whether the accused has made some colorable demonstration, under the circumstances, such that permitting withdrawal of the plea would promote fairness and justice.
After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued this opinion, the Commonwealth filed a motion to reconsider the trial court’s order to withdraw the defendant’s plea. On June 25, 2015, the trial court heard arguments on the Commonwealth’s motion for reconsideration. For its part, the Commonwealth questioned the plausibility and sincerity of the defendant’s innocence and suggested that the defendant was seeking to delay the prosecution and the consequences that awaited him. The Commonwealth argued that the evidence against him was strong and thus his assertion of innocence was implausible and that fairness and justice did not require the court to allow him to withdraw his plea.
In response, the defense argued that the defendant had always maintained his innocence. This was shown by him entering a no-contest plea that did not equate to an admission of guilt. Further, defense counsel also argued that the defendant refused to participate in the assessment to determine whether he was a sexually violent predator because he maintained his innocence. Finally, the defense argued that they intended to attack the Commonwealth’s evidence at trial by attacking the granddaughter’s credibility because she answered “I don’t remember” at least 15 times during the preliminary hearing.
On June 26, 2015, the trial court issued an order granting the Commonwealth’s motion for reconsideration and denying the defendant’s motion to withdraw his plea. The trial court stated that the defendant “did not make a colorable demonstration for withdrawal of his plea of no contest that would promote fairness and justice.” The trial court also stated that in his motion the defendant only asserted that he was innocent and could not live with himself for taking a plea to offenses of which he was innocent. The defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied. The defendant was subsequently sentenced to the previously agreed upon terms. He then filed a timely appeal.
The Defendant’s Appeal to the Superior Court
On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court abused its discretion by denying his pre-sentence motion to withdraw his no contest plea. The defendant argued that he maintained his innocence throughout the trial court proceedings. Additionally, he argued that he offered a viable defense to the charges to which he pleaded, namely, he could challenge the sufficiency of the Commonwealth’s evidence by undermining the credibility of the Commonwealth’s witnesses, particularly that of the granddaughter.
In response, the Commonwealth insisted that the trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The Commonwealth argued that the defendant merely asserted his innocence without making a specific colorable demonstration that the withdrawal of that plea would promote fairness and justice. In response to the defendant’s proclaimed trial strategy, the Commonwealth argued that any defense predicated on attacking the granddaughter’s credibility should have been readily apparent to the defense and his counsel following the preliminary hearing. Yet, despite these inconsistencies, the defendant chose to plead no contest.
The Superior Court denied the defendant’s appeal. The Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying his motion to withdraw his plea. In support of its conclusion, the Superior Court stated that the defendant had nearly two years between his arrest and his plea to examine and weigh the evidence in this case in deciding whether to assert his innocence or a viable defense to the charges at trial. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which was granted.
What is the Standard for Withdrawing a Guilty Plea?
As discussed above, asserting one’s innocence is no longer sufficient to withdraw a guilty plea or a plea of no contest because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo. Rather, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that in addition to a defendant’s claim of innocence, this claim must be at least plausibly demonstrate, in and of itself, a fair and just reason for pre-sentence withdrawal of a plea. Despite these new restrictions, the “policy of liberality” remains in effect in favor of withdrawing the guilty plea. However, Carrasquill did give trial courts the discretion to assess the plausibility of claims of innocence.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Lower Court’s Decisions Denying Defendant’s Motion to Withdraw His Guilty Plea
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the defendant’s appeal. In its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that the defendant’s appeal was merely just him asserting his innocence. What is troubling is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court characterized the credibility issues of the complainant as the defendant wanting to merely “test the Commonwealth’s evidence at trial.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court seems to tacitly acknowledge that there were credibility issues with the complainant, yet it held that this was not sufficient to withdraw a guilty plea. Consequently, the defendant will not get a new trial and will be forced to serve his negotiated sentence.
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