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Last Updated on: 13th October 2023, 08:21 pm
Entering a guilty plea is a major decision with serious consequences in a federal criminal case. Many defendants initially plead guilty to resolve their case through a plea agreement and avoid the time and expense of a trial. However, some defendants later have second thoughts and want to withdraw their guilty plea before sentencing. This raises the question – is it possible to withdraw a guilty plea in federal court?
The short answer is yes, it is possible, but not easy. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(d), a defendant may withdraw a guilty plea before it is accepted by the court. However, once the court accepts the plea, the standard becomes much harder to meet. The defendant must show a “fair and just reason” for withdrawing the plea. Meeting this standard is difficult, and courts rarely allow defendants to withdraw a plea after it has been accepted.
There are two main time periods when a defendant can attempt to withdraw a guilty plea in federal court:
After sentencing occurs, it becomes extremely difficult to withdraw a guilty plea. The only option at that point is to file a habeas petition claiming a constitutional issue affected the plea. So for all practical purposes, the deadline for withdrawing a plea is prior to sentencing.
Exactly what qualifies as a fair and just reason is decided by the court on a case-by-case basis. However, some common arguments include:
The strength of the reason matters more than the specific argument. Courts are very reluctant to allow plea withdrawals, so the defendant must show compelling circumstances. Weak reasons like changing one’s mind or dissatisfaction with the plea deal are usually rejected.
In addition to the defendant’s reason for withdrawing the plea, courts also weigh several other factors:
These factors help the judge assess how fair and just it would be to permit withdrawal under the totality of circumstances. The bottom line is that the longer the process has gone on, and the weaker the reason for withdrawing, the less likely the court is to grant the request.
Given the strict standard, having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is essential when trying to withdraw a guilty plea. Here are some strategies a lawyer may use:
The court will review the entire record and hold an evidentiary hearing to evaluate these arguments. However, the odds are stacked against the defendant at this stage. Thorough preparation and skillful advocacy are required to show withdrawing the plea is fair and just.
Withdrawing a guilty plea is much easier before the court accepts it. At this stage, the defendant has an absolute right to reverse course for any reason. The request does not have to be justified to the court. Defense counsel simply informs the judge the defendant has changed their mind and wants to go to trial.
It is important to withdraw the plea before the court states on the record that it is accepted. Some judges expressly accept the plea at the hearing, while others defer acceptance until later. Pay close attention, because once the court accepts the plea, the “fair and just reason” standard kicks in.
Withdrawing a guilty plea in federal court is very difficult after it has been accepted. While it is possible, defendants face an uphill battle showing a compelling reason that outweighs the presumption that accepted pleas are final. Consult with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer before deciding whether to attempt withdrawing a plea in your case.
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