Motions to Withdraw Guilty Pleas in New Jersey

A motion to withdraw a guilty plea is determined under the standards set forth in State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145 (2009). Under Slater, such motions are considered under the same four-factor test regardless of whether the motion is made before or after sentencing.

Courts deciding such motions must consider:

“(1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of defendant’s reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal would result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused.”

Id. at 150 (emphasis supplied).

If the motion is made prior to sentencing, these four factors are considered under the interests of justice standard of R. 3:9-3(e). Id. at 156. If the motion is made at any point after sentencing, which is the case here, the court must consider the four factors under the higher “manifest injustice” standard under R. 3:21-1. Id.

Regardless of which standard applies, the burden rests on the defendant to present “some plausible basis for his request, and his good faith in asserting a defense on the merits.” Id. (quoting State v. Smullen, 118 N.J. 408 (1990)). A “whimsical change of mind” by the defendant or prosecutor is not an adequate basis for setting aside a plea. Slater, 198 N.J. at 157.

Under the first prong, a defendant must assert a colorable claim of innocence. Id. at 158. A bare assertion of innocence is insufficient to justify withdrawing a plea. Id. Rather, the defendant must provide the court with “specific, credible facts and, where possible, point to facts in the record that buttress that claim.” Id. In so doing, the court may consider the evidence that was available to the prosecutor and defendant through discovery at the time the defendant entered his plea. Id.

The court should not conduct a ‘mini-trial’ in making this determination, but should instead “simply consider whether a defendant’s assertion of innocence is more than a blanket, bald statement and rests instead on particular, plausible facts.” Id. at 159. The judge need not be convinced that the defendant presents a winning argument, as that is ultimately an issue for a jury in a criminal trial.

The second prong requires the court to review the nature and strength of the defendant’s reasons for the withdrawal of his plea. Id. This factor focuses on “the basic fairness of enforcing a guilty plea” by determining whether the defendant has presented fair and just reasons for his withdrawal. Id. Some examples of fair and just reasons provided by the Slater Court include the following: the court and prosecutor misinforming the defendant about a material element of the plea negotiation on which the defendant based his plea, a lack of information and understanding of the material terms and consequences of the guilty plea, a defendant’s reasonable expectations under a plea agreement not being met; or a plausible showing of a valid defense against the charges which also credibly demonstrates why that defense was “forgotten or missed” at the time of the plea. Id. at 160.

In those cases made after sentencing, the defendant’s motion must be substantiated by strong, compelling reasons. Id. “The longer the delay in raising a reason for withdrawal, or asserting one’s innocence, the greater the level of scrutiny needed to evaluate the claim.” Id. Courts should not assess the nature and strength of the reasons for withdrawal with skepticism, but should instead act with great care and realism, recognizing that defendants often have little to lose in challenging a guilty plea. Id. However, the court may rest its ruling on its view of the defendant’s demeanor and candor during the plea and withdrawal hearings.

The third prong requires the judge to decide whether the defendant’s plea was part of a plea bargain. Id. A defendant whose plea was part of a plea bargain faces a heavier burden. Id. Acknowledging that the vast majority of guilty verdicts arise out of plea agreements, the Court does not give great weight to this factor when balancing the prongs of the Slater test. Id. at 161. On the contrary, the plea bargain question should be given the least weight in the overall analysis. Munroe, 2012 WL 2401097 at *6.

The final prong is whether withdrawal of the defendant’s plea would result in unfair prejudice to the State or an unfair advantage to the accused. Slater, 198 N.J. at 161. The seminal question is “whether the passage of time has hampered the State’s ability to present important evidence.” Munroe, 2012 WL 2401097 at *6. In so doing, the court should consider the intervening time between the entry of the guilty plea and the hearing of the withdrawal motion. Id.

The court may also consider the State’s efforts leading up to the plea and whether it is fair to require that they be repeated. Id. Court’s should especially consider whether a trial had begun prior to the entrance of the plea. Id. To allow defendants represented by counsel to withdraw voluntary and knowing pleas entered after trial began would greatly impede the administration of justice. Id. at 162. The State, however, need not show prejudice in the event that a defendant fails to offer proof in support of the other Slater factors. Id.

Ultimately, the judge must balance these four factors to determine whether the facts meet the appropriate standard. “No factor is mandatory; if one is missing, that does not automatically disqualify or dictate relief.” Id. Defense counsel should marshall together strong facts that upon balancing, will lead to the inescapable conclusion that the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea should be granted.

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