Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Alters the Landscape for Guilty Plea Withdrawals

It is common in Pennsylvania for a criminal defendant to plead guilty to some or all of the crimes alleged and leave court on the same day without a sentence. Entering a guilty plea and sentencing are two distinct interactions with the court, and are not required to take place simultaneously. Courts will often require a pre-sentence investigation be conducted after the plea but prior to sentencing, providing the court with some background about the crime and the defendant to aid the court at the sentencing hearing. During the months following the plea but before sentencing, some defendants change their mind and decide they would rather exercise their constitutional right to a trial, and seek to withdraw the guilty plea.

For the past forty years when presented with a motion to withdraw a guilty plea prior to sentencing, if the trial court found “any fair and just reason,” withdrawal of the plea was to be freely permitted unless the prosecution had been “substantially prejudiced.” The Superior Court of Pennsylvania reiterated the well-established principle that the “mere articulation of innocence” is a fair and just reason for withdrawal of a guilty plea as recently as 2011. Such requests to withdraw a guilty plea were to be “liberally allowed” by the court, favoring defendants.

On June 15, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court altered the landscape of guilty plea withdrawals prior to sentencing. In Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo, the Defendant was accused of brutally raping and hospitalizing an eleven-year-old girl and sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old. Police interrogated Carrasquillo, who made inculpatory statements. Carrasquillo entered guilty pleas to the major offenses including rape. At the sentencing hearing, after the report of the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board was reviewed and the court determined Carrasquillo was a sexually violent predator; after the victim, her parents, grandmother, teacher and physician testified to the severe physical and emotional trauma the victim suffered; after expert testimony was presented concerning Carrasquillo’s neuropsychological impairment, and after a letter was submitted from Carrasquillo’s aunt for leniency, he asked to withdraw the guilty pleas. In short, the entire sentencing hearing was completed aside from the court imposing sentence.

The sentencing court determined that Carrasquillo’s claim of innocence, premised in part on an explanation that he had been framed in an elaborate scheme orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency and conditioned upon a polygraph test was “implausible, insincere, and nothing more than an attempt to manipulate the justice system” by introducing a belated competency-based defense. Rather than a good faith advancement of innocence, the sentencing court found that Carrasquillo’s allocution “was a guilty, shamed reaction to harsh testimony at the sentencing hearing, in which he heard himself described as a monster, pedophile, and rapist by the victim and her family as they recounted the suffering and anguish he inflicted upon them.” In the face of a liberal standard to allow withdrawals prior to sentencing, the court refused and imposed a sentence of 30-66 years. On appeal the Superior Court reversed, essentially holding that any assertion of innocence prior to sentencing was to be “liberally allowed,” no matter how unbelievable.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided to alter the framework of pre-sentence plea withdrawals, drawing on the approach of other jurisdictions, “which require that a defendant’s innocence claim must be at least plausible to demonstrate, in and of itself, a fair and just reason for presentence withdrawal of a plea.” Now, “the proper inquiry on consideration of such a withdrawal motion is whether the accused has made some colorable demonstration, under circumstances, such that permitting withdrawal of the plea would promote fairness and justice. The policy of liberality remains extant but has its limits, consistent with the affordance of a degree of discretion to the common pleas courts.”

This recent ruling will make it more difficult for criminal defendants who have entered pleas of guilty to withdraw and seek a trial before sentencing. It is now incumbent that defense attorneys be prepared to offer a colorable defense when seeking to withdraw, as bald assertions of innocence may not suffice. If you are charged with a criminal offense, it is extremely important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Steven P. Trialonas and our attorneys at the Mazza Law Group, P.C. remain vigilant of changes in the law that impact the rights of our clients.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Alters the Landscape for Guilty Plea Withdrawals was last modified: August 25th, 2015 by Steven Trialonas