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Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - Subsequent Challenges

defendants appeal sentencing withdrawal

Courts and legislatures hesitate to allow defendants who later find themselves dissatisfied to undo plea agreements. Nevertheless, occasions exist in which fairness demands reconsideration. Three mechanisms for challenging pleas exist. Defendants may seek to withdraw pleas, before sentencing or thereafter. Defendants may challenge pleas or sentences on appeal. Defendants may raise legal objections after the time for appeal has elapsed, through habeas corpus or other statutory procedures.

It is easier to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing than thereafter. Federal and some state statutes authorize only pre-sentencing withdrawal. Their logic is that plea withdrawals before sentencing put the parties in the same position as before an agreement was reached. Thus, defendants are likely to request withdrawal only for a good reason. After sentencing, on the other hand, all defendants dissatisfied with their sentences will seek to undo their pleas. The longer the period that has passed, the more difficult it becomes for the prosecution to prove its case.

Accordingly, defendants may seek presentencing withdrawal for any "fair and just reason." A few courts have interpreted this standard as permitting automatic withdrawal unless the prosecutor shows prejudice. Most, however, require defendants to present some substantial justification for withdrawal. Jurisdictions that allow post-sentencing withdrawal impose a higher standard: defendants must show that "manifest injustice" will occur if withdrawal is refused.

After sentencing, a defendant may challenge the plea or sentence on direct appeal, provided that the appeal is filed within statutory time limits. Direct appeal offers advantages over other forms of collateral attack, because defendants may raise all legal and constitutional objections to the plea process without having to overcome jurisdictional hurdles. The grounds for successful appeal are, however, limited. Most claims of pre-plea police misconduct and evidentiary deficiencies are not cognizable.

In practice, most challenges to guilty pleas occur after the time for appeal has expired. They typically take the form of habeas corpus petitions, motions for new trials, or other statespecific post-conviction relief mechanisms. In deference to the government's interest in finality of judgments, these remedies all impose procedural obstacles to successful prosecution. Even if a petition survives these, courts ordinarily will not reverse guilty pleas unless a defendant can establish that a significant constitutional error has occurred and that maintaining the plea would produce manifest injustice.

Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - Bibliography [next] [back] Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - Statutory And Procedural Requirements

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