29 Nov 23

Appealing Federal Guilty Pleas and Plea Bargains

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Last Updated on: 15th December 2023, 11:47 am

Appealing Federal Guilty Pleas and Plea Bargains

Pleading guilty in a federal criminal case is a big decision that can have lifelong consequences. Many defendants choose to take a plea bargain to avoid the risk of a trial and potentially longer sentence. But what happens if you later regret your guilty plea or feel it was unfair? This article explains how to appeal a federal guilty plea and the limited grounds for withdrawing a plea after sentencing.

Can You Withdraw a Guilty Plea Before Sentencing?

Before a judge accepts your guilty plea, you can withdraw it for any reason. However, once the judge formally accepts your guilty plea, it becomes very difficult to take it back. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(d) allows a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing if they can show a “fair and just reason” for requesting the withdrawal.[1]

Courts don’t make withdrawing a plea easy, but possible reasons include:

  • You received ineffective assistance from your defense attorney
  • You didn’t fully understand the plea agreement or consequences of pleading guilty
  • You felt coerced or pressured into accepting the plea bargain
  • New evidence or changed circumstances make a trial seem more favorable

The judge will consider factors like whether you asserted legal innocence, the length of delay, prejudice to the government, and the inconvenience to the court when deciding if you have a “fair and just reason.”[2] It’s advisable to consult an attorney to improve your chances of successfully withdrawing a plea before sentencing.

What Are the Grounds for Appealing a Guilty Plea After Sentencing?

Once a federal judge accepts your guilty plea and imposes a sentence, it is extremely difficult to undo. You generally give up your right to appeal when pleading guilty. The only options for challenging a plea after sentencing are:

  1. File a direct appeal claiming your plea wasn’t voluntary, knowing, or intelligent
  2. File a petition for writ of habeas corpus alleging ineffective assistance of counsel
  3. File a motion for post-conviction relief if new evidence surfaces

Direct Appeal of Involuntary Plea

Most plea agreements include an appeal waiver, so you can only appeal if the waiver was invalid or didn’t cover your issue. For instance, you may appeal if the judge didn’t comply with Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 by ensuring your plea was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent.[3]

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This is a very high bar, as courts presume pleas are valid. You must show the judge failed to inform you of your rights, the nature of the charges, or that you didn’t understand the consequences of your plea. The appeal must be filed within 14 days of sentencing.

Habeas Petition for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Many defendants try appealing a guilty plea by filing a habeas corpus petition claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. This asserts your defense attorney’s performance was deficient and prejudiced your case.[4] For example, you could argue your lawyer pressured you into accepting a plea without properly investigating defenses or explaining the consequences.

The court will consider whether your attorney’s conduct fell below objective standards of reasonable performance and if the outcome likely would have been different with adequate representation. This is also a very high standard, so consult an appellate lawyer if considering this option.

Motion for Post-Conviction Relief

In rare cases, you may file a motion for post-conviction relief if new evidence surfaces that makes your conviction seem unjust. For example, if a witness recants testimony or new DNA evidence exonerates you. The court would consider if the new evidence undermines confidence in your conviction and if you acted diligently in discovering the evidence.[5]

This type of collateral attack on a conviction faces strict deadlines around 1-3 years after conviction depending on the grounds. It also requires showing diligence in uncovering the new evidence.

Strategies for Getting a Plea Deal Overturned

While challenging a guilty plea is difficult, certain strategies can improve your chances of success:

  • Act quickly – don’t delay filing your appeal or habeas petition
  • Stick to valid legal arguments, not just regret over your plea
  • Gather evidence like affidavits supporting your claims
  • Consult an experienced federal criminal appellate lawyer
  • Emphasize any deficiencies in the plea colloquy or sentencing
  • Argue the plea violates the Constitution or your fundamental rights

The court will also consider any prejudice to the government’s case caused by delay when weighing a request to withdraw a plea. So acting fast and focusing on legal errors rather than just changing your mind gives you the best shot.

Should You Accept a Plea Bargain?

The difficulty withdrawing a guilty plea highlights the importance of getting experienced legal advice before accepting any plea deal. Consider:

  • Are you actually guilty and admitting the truth?
  • Do you understand the rights you’ll waive by pleading guilty?
  • Are you comfortable with the recommended sentence?
  • Does the plea impact any immigration or civil issues?
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Never accept a plea based on pressure or without fully understanding the consequences. While a plea bargain resolves a case efficiently, you give up most appeals – so you must get it right before that guilty plea.

Withdrawing a plea is an uphill battle, but possible in limited circumstances. If you believe your plea was unlawful or counsel was ineffective, don’t delay in speaking to an attorney about appealing your conviction after sentencing.


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