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Thursday, April 24, 2014

High Court affirms denial of motion to withdraw guilty plea

The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Angel J. Santos’ motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Santos had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit sexual assault in the first degree in exchange for cooperating with police and having five other charges dismissed. Nine months after the guilty plea, Santos tried to withdraw his plea because the Commonwealth had not yet brought his co-conspirators to trial.

At issue was the standard for reviewing a motion to withdraw a plea. Santos argued courts should allow defendants to withdraw their guilty pleas before sentencing for any reason so long as it would not unreasonably harm the government’s case. Harm, for example, would include the loss of key evidence after the plea such as if an important witness subsequently died.

The Commonwealth disagreed, claiming that while courts should freely permit defendant to withdraw their guilty pleas, courts should only do so if the defendant can also provide a fair-and-just reason for withdrawing the plea.

The High Court agreed with the Commonwealth, concluding courts should freely grant motions to withdraw guilty pleas if the defendant shows a fair-and-just reason and the plea withdrawal would not unreasonably harm the government’s case.

The Supeme Court then affirmed the trial court’s denial of Santos’ plea withdrawal because Santos had not provided a fair-and-just reason. He had simply changed his mind long after his plea. Instead, Santos needed to show problems at the plea hearing, newly discovered evidence, intervening circumstances, or some other reason meriting the withdrawal.

The Supreme Court’s full opinion is Commonwealth v. Santos, 2013 MP 18, and can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme13.html. (NMI Judiciary)

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