Withdrawing a Guilty Plea in Pennsylvania

I pleaded guilty, and I think it was a mistake. Can I withdraw a guilty plea? 

Yes, in some cases it is possible to withdraw a guilty plea and go to trial. However, there are strict time limits for when motions to withdraw guilty pleas must be filed, and the motions are often difficult to win. If you recently pleaded guilty and feel that you may have made a mistake, you should contact one of our defense attorneys at 267-225-2545 immediately to discuss the merits of withdrawing your plea and the likelihood of success. If you wait too long, you could waive the right to challenge your plea forever. 

How do I withdraw a guilty plea?

There are three ways that a guilty plea could be withdrawn. First, if the sentencing has not yet occurred, then the defendant may file a written pre-sentence motion to withdraw the guilty plea. Second, if the sentencing has already occurred, then the defendant has ten days from the date of sentencing to file a post-sentence motion asking the court to permit the defendant to withdraw the guilty plea. Finally, in rare cases, it may be possible to ask the judge for a new trial even after a guilty plea by filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. A PCRA Petition must be filed within one year from when the sentence became final. A sentence becomes final on the day of sentencing unless there is an appeal. Post-sentence motions and PCRA Petitions challenging guilty pleas are difficult to win. 

Does the judge have to let me withdraw the plea? 

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Criminal Appeals Attorney

Demetra Mehta, Esq. - Criminal Appeals Attorney

The judge is never required to allow a defendant to withdraw a plea. Instead, the judge must evaluate the allegations in the written motion and determine whether the interests of justice require that the defendant be allowed to withdraw a plea and proceed to trial. The exact standard which a judge will apply depends on the procedural posture of the case. Pre-sentence guilty pleas are typically easier to undo than a post-sentence guilty plea. 

As a general rule, pre-sentence guilty pleas are the easiest to undo and motions to withdraw them are often granted. However, the right to withdraw a plea pre-sentencing is not absolute. in Commonweatlh v. Carrasquillo, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court re-affirmed that the trial court is imbued with the discretion to deny a defendant permission to withdraw a guilty plea, whether that request is tendered before or after sentencing. The Supreme Court suggested that a pre-sentence motion should typically be granted, but it reiterated that there is no absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea. Instead, trial courts have discretion in determining whether a withdrawal request will be granted; such discretion is to be administered liberally in favor of the accused; and any demonstration by a defendant of a fair-and-just reason will suffice to support a grant, unless withdrawal would work substantial prejudice to the Commonwealth.

Prior to Carrasquillo, a defendant was entitled to pre-sentence withdrawal of a guilty plea simply upon a bare assertion of innocence. Now, a defendant may be required to demonstrate that the claim of innocence is plausible in order for it to be a fair and just reason for withdrawal of a plea. Thus, in the recent Superior Court case of Commonwealth v. Baez, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the trial court's denial of a pre-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea where the defendant had picked a jury, heard from a number of witnesses, and then decided to plead guilty to various sexual offenses pursuant to negotiations with the prosecution. The Baez court concluded that the Commonwealth would suffer prejudice because child witnesses had already been required to testify and that the defendant had not provided a plausible claim of innocence.  

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Philadelphia Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Pre-sentence motions are no longer guaranteed, but they are often granted. Post-sentence motions, however, are much more difficult to win. Nonetheless, they may still be granted in some cases. Post-sentence motions for withdrawal are subject to higher scrutiny because courts strive to discourage entry of guilty pleas as sentence-testing devices. Instead, a defendant must demonstrate that manifest injustice would result if the court were to deny his post-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea. This is a harder claim to prove, and it will typically require more than simply asserting the defendant's innocence. Instead, the defense would likely be required to show a compelling case for innocence or that some new evidence or witnesses have come forward since the plea. The post-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea must be filed within ten days of the sentence. 

Finally, in rare cases, it may be possible to attack a conviction through the Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition by filing a PCRA Petition within one year of sentencing or the conclusion of direct appeals, whichever is later. If the defendant can show that the plea was the result of ineffectiveness of counsel, that after-discovered, exculpatory evidence would have changed the defendant's mind about pleading guilty, or some change in constitutional law that would have provided a defense, it may be possible to challenge a guilty plea by filing a PCRA. Again, the time limits are strict, and if motions are not filed on time, then the right to attack the conviction could be lost forever. 

What happens if I am allowed to withdraw the guilty plea?

If the judge grants the motion to withdraw the plea, then your case will proceed as if the plea was never entered. This means that the parties are free to continue plea negotiations in the hopes of reaching a better deal. The parties may also litigate motions like pre-trial motions to suppress and then proceed to trial. Most importantly, the fact that the defendant pleaded guilty at one point during the case and was permitted to withdraw the plea is not admissible against the defendant at trial. The Rules of Evidence specifically prohibit introducing evidence relating to plea negotiations and in-court plea proceedings. This means that the fact that there was at one point a guilty plea cannot be used against the defendant to show guilt. 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Post-Sentence Motions, Criminal Appeals, and Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions

Goldstein Mehta LLC - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you recently pleaded guilty and believe that you made a mistake, we may be able to help. We have successfully helped clients reverse convictions and pleas through the use of post-sentence motions, appeals, and Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions. It is important to remember that strict deadlines apply when attempting to undo a guilty plea. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session with one of our experienced and understanding defense attorneys to every potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer today.