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Can a Plea Deal be Reversed?
(5 Scenarios Explained)

Although uncommon, a plea deal can be reversed under certain circumstances, such as in cases of prosecutorial misconduct, sentencing errors, new evidence, or withdrawal by the defendant.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

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What is a Plea Deal?

When the prosecution possesses a strong case, they may offer the defendant a plea deal to avoid a trial and potentially reduce the defendant's exposure to a longer sentence.

When the defendant admits to the crime, they agree they are guilty and they agree that they may be “sentenced” by the judge presiding over the court — the only person authorized to impose a sentence, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) [1]. Sometimes the Government will agree, as part of a plea agreement, not to recommend an enhanced sentence (such as additional time in prison for certain reasons) but it is left up to the judge to determine how the defendant will be punished.

If a defendant enters a guilty plea, a trial is avoided, and the focus shifts to preparing for a sentencing hearing.

In What Cases Can a Plea Deal be Reversed?

Here are some scenarios where a plea deal might be reversed:

  • Withdrawal by the defendant: If the defendant entered into the plea deal involuntarily, without understanding the consequences, or due to coercion or duress, they may petition the court to withdraw the plea. The court will consider the circumstances and may allow the withdrawal if it finds the plea was not entered into knowingly and voluntarily
  • Prosecutorial misconduct: If there is evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, such as withholding exculpatory evidence or making false statements, a court may reconsider a plea deal. This typically requires a showing of serious misconduct that affected the fairness of the plea process
  • New evidence: If new evidence emerges that undermines the factual basis of the plea or raises doubts about the defendant's guilt, a court may reconsider the plea deal. This could include evidence of innocence or evidence that was not available at the time of the plea
  • Sentencing errors: If there are errors in the sentencing process, such as miscalculations of the sentence or failure to consider relevant factors, a court may reconsider the plea deal and modify the sentence
  • Breach of the plea agreement: If the prosecution or the court fails to uphold their end of the plea agreement, such as by seeking a harsher sentence than agreed upon, the defendant may seek to have the plea deal reversed or modified

In any of these situations, the defendant would typically need to file a motion with the court requesting to withdraw the plea deal.

According to Justia's publication from 2022, the court would then hold a hearing to consider the motion and any evidence or arguments presented before making a decision [2].

Reasons a Judge Might Accept a Plea Withdrawal

  • Ineffective assistance of counsel
  • Lack of legal counsel
  • The plea was entered without the defendant’s consent
  • The defendant was not psychologically competent to plead guilty
  • The strength of the defendant’s case has risen
  • The defendant was manipulated or threatened
  • Constitutional violations (e.g., the defendant was not allowed to seek counsel)
  • Impropriety (e.g., the judge does not appear impartial because they told the defendant that they would be more lenient than jurors)

Plea Bargaining Statistics

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2005) [3], in 2003 there were 75,573 cases disposed of in federal district court by trial or plea. Of these, about 95 percent were disposed of by a guilty plea (Pastore and Maguire, 2003). While there are no exact estimates of the proportion of cases that are resolved through plea bargaining, scholars estimate that about 90 to 95 percent of both federal and state court cases are resolved through this process.

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