Plea bargaining has grown in popularity as criminal courts have become increasingly crowded, and constitutional concerns require cases to be moved speedily through the system. They are desirable because they are the result of a negotiation where prosecution and defense both maintain some control over the outcome, and hopefully, the attorneys develop a plea bargain that both they and you can live with.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty or “no contest” (nolo contendere) in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to drop one or multiple charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense, or recommend to the judge a specific sentence acceptable to the defense.
One type of plea called an “open plea” refers to the defendant pleading guilty without any promise from the prosecution as to what sentence it will recommend and relying completely on the mercy of the court for the ultimate sentence.
Can You Appeal a Plea Bargain?
In exceptional circumstances, a plea bargain that was not knowingly or voluntarily accepted may be appealable, usually before the same judge who accepted it at the trial court level, but also at higher levels including the appellate court, Texas Supreme Court, and federal courts.
You arrive at the courthouse when the doors open and meet your attorney for the first time. You spoke a few days earlier over the phone, explained your case to the attorney, sent him documents which show you were innocent, and he assured you that it was a minor matter that he could make “go away.” The judge begins calling cases, and you wait in the courtroom for several hours. This is not quality time spent bonding with your attorney; in fact, while you wait, your lawyer is in and out of the courtroom taking phone calls, talking about weekend plans with police officers, flirting with a court reporter, and finally, meeting with the prosecutor.
Your attorney speaks to you just moments before your case is called and tells you “You should take the deal I got you because I’m not spending any more time talking to the prosecutor about it today.” He tells you it’s a good deal, and that’s all he tells you. When the judge reviews your case, you plead guilty, taking the plea without really knowing what is happening. You end up with significant jail time. Afterward, you learn your attorney never even read the e-mail with the evidence that you sent over, proving your innocence. In an extreme case such as this, you may have the right to appeal your own plea bargain.
Can You Appeal a Guilty Plea?
If your lawyer doesn’t properly advise you on your plea bargain, you may have a viable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, one of several grounds to appeal your guilty plea.
Other grounds for appealing a guilty plea could be if you did not understand the consequences of the plea, such as the amount of jail time, probation, restitution, parole, or required registration on a sex offender registry. If you are an immigrant, not being informed of deportation consequences at the time of entering a guilty plea is grounds for appealing the plea.
Still more grounds include being induced to enter the plea, having impaired judgment or lacking mental capacity at the time of entering the plea, or technical matters, like the court failing to establish the factual basis for your crime or the court clerk making a clerical mistake, such as entering too long a sentence or failing to account for jail time credits.
Is Pleading Guilty the Same as a Conviction?
Pleading guilty and being convicted are close, but not quite the same. They are different stages in the process. The guilty plea is one stage; the sentencing hearing and sentencing is the final stage and when the actual “conviction” is entered.
Occasionally, a judge will sentence a person on the same day as a plea. However, with more serious matters the judge usually sets sentencing for a later date to leave time for a pre-sentence interview and the drafting of a pre-sentence report prior to sentencing. In these cases, there is usually time to withdraw a guilty plea before the final conviction, discussed more below.
Can a Judge Overrule a Plea Agreement?
Plea deals aren’t always honored by the judge, who has the ultimate authority to accept or reject a plea deal. The judge might say no to a plea deal for several different reasons, including pressure from victims in a case and pressure from the general public, especially if the case is a high profile one with much media attention. In some states, like Texas, the general public also includes voters who elect judges to the bench.
Due to the possibility that a judge could reject a plea agreement and impose a harsher sentence, it’s sometimes wise for defense attorneys to apprise the judge of a potential plea. While the judge cannot set the terms of the plea bargain, he or she can indicate a leaning towards certain provisions and whether he or she might accept or reject a certain deal.
Withdrawing a Guilty Plea after Sentencing – Is This Possible?
After sentencing, withdrawing a plea is an uphill battle, but with a good criminal appeals attorney in Houston, the climb isn’t impossible. The trial judge will typically set aside a conviction and allow plea withdrawal only if it’s necessary to avoid an obvious injustice. However, there are various situations in which trial or appellate judges are generally supposed to allow defendants to withdraw their pleas.
These include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- The defendant didn’t “intelligently” plead guilty, whether because of psychological challenges or the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Defense counsel failed to advise the defendant of crucial ramifications of the plea deal, such as mandatory deportation of an immigrant.
- The lawyer entered a guilty plea on the client’s behalf without the client’s consent.
- The defendant was denied a constitutional right, such as the right to counsel.
- The judge participated too much in plea negotiations.
- The defendant entered the plea because of off-the-record promises or threats.
- New evidence of innocence surfaces (such as DNA analysis).
Motion to Withdraw a Plea after Sentencing
A motion to withdraw your guilty plea means you are asking the judge to let you take your plea back. It must be in writing and must explain why the judge should allow you to change your mind. Typically, a motion to withdraw a plea after sentencing will only be considered on a showing of “good cause.”
Good cause can include:
- Whether there’s any factual basis for the plea.
- Whether the defendant understood the charges against them.
- Whether the defendant was informed of their Constitutional rights (right to trial, right to counsel).
If you believe you meet the above test, then it will be important to file your motion to vacate with the clerk of the court immediately. These time limits tend to be very short depending on what court you are in. If you change your mind later, you can always withdraw the motion.
When you face a guilty plea, don’t leave your future in the hands of an unknowledgeable and inexperienced attorney. If you’re in need of a highly effective federal sentencing consultant or criminal appeals lawyer in Houston, contact The Law Offices of Seth Kretzer today.