Criminal Law

Guilty Pleas and Appeals

By Thomas Seigel, Attorney and Former Federal Prosecutor
Did you plead guilty after losing a motion to keep evidence out of trial? Your lawyer might have crafted your plea bargain to preserve your right to appeal just that issue.

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If you choose to give up your right to trial in a criminal case and enter a guilty plea, you will be giving up not only a trial but also, in most instances, the right to appeal any legal or factual issues to a higher court. Once you have entered a guilty plea, the judge will convict you based on your own admissions, and you will ordinarily have no grounds to undo that conviction in a court of appeals. You may, however, be able to appeal your sentence, as long as you have not given up that right in any plea deal with the prosecution. (For more information on appealing a sentence, see Appealing a Criminal Sentence.)

Let’s look at why you likely have no right to appeal after a guilty plea and at those limited circumstances when you may be able to file an appeal or otherwise challenge your conviction.

Guilty Pleas are Meant to be Final

Guilty pleas save courts and prosecutors time and resources by putting an end to the legal and factual disputes that would otherwise be the subject of legal briefs, witness testimony, hearings, and trials. If all those issues could be brought up in an appeals court after a guilty plea, the benefits of that plea would be lost.

Because defendants give up their right to have factual and legal questions decided by a judge and a jury, judges take guilty pleas very seriously. During guilty plea hearings, defendants are placed under oath, and judges question them to make sure they understand the charges, the possible penalties, and their trial-related rights. After a defendant has admitted guilt, the court will enter a judgment of conviction and proceed to the sentencing phase. During the hearing, the judge will typically state that a defendant may have no right to appeal a conviction based on a guilty plea.

Taking Back a Guilty Plea

If you wish to withdraw a guilty plea, an appeal court is not normally the place to start. In most jurisdictions, you must file a request with the trial court judge—and the sooner you do it, the better. Court rules generally require you to show good cause—such as misconduct by the prosecutor or a significant error on the part of the judge during your plea hearing—before judges will allow you to withdraw your guilty plea.

If the trial judge denies your request, you can appeal that decision. Appeals of a trial judge’s refusal to allow the withdrawal of a guilty plea, however, are rarely successful. Appeals courts tend to defer to the judgment of the trial judge except in the case of a gross miscarriage of justice.

Conditional Guilty Pleas

In rare circumstances, a prosecutor may agree to a plea deal that includes the right to appeal a specific issue. Your attorney, for example, may have asked the judge to keep damaging evidence, like drugs or weapons, out of the case on the grounds that it was seized during an illegal search of your home. If the judge denies your attorney’s request, you may decide that a trial, with that evidence included, will not end well. In that situation, your lawyer may be able to get a plea bargain that allows you to plead guilty but preserves your right to withdraw that plea if an appeals court later concludes the search was unlawful.

Habeas Corpus: Another Way to Challenge a Conviction

Even if you cannot pursue a direct appeal because the window for filing your notice has closed, or you do not have a conditional plea, you might not necessarily be at a dead end. Filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the trial court may be another way to get your conviction overturned.

A petition for a writ of habeas corpus is a motion that you file with the trial court, raising arguments as to why the judge should allow you to withdraw the plea. These may be the same reasons that you would have raised on appeal, but perhaps you didn’t appeal the case because you didn’t file in time.

For example, imagine that you decided to plead guilty to an assault charge. If, after the period for appeal had expired, you learned that a police officer deliberately hid a surveillance video showing that you acted in self-defense, you may be able to bring this newly-discovered evidence to the trial court in a habeas motion, hoping that the judge will overturn your conviction. If you lose the petition, you can also file one in the appellate court.

Defendants often use habeas corpus motions to challenge their pleas based on the ineffectiveness of their lawyers. If a prior attorney’s advice or performance was sufficiently poor, a judge may conclude that a defendant was denied the constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. A successful habeas corpus motion, in that case, would result in overturning your conviction and the possibility of a new trial or, perhaps, a new plea deal.

Questions to ask Your Lawyer

  • Does my plea bargain give me any right to appeal?
  • How long do I have to decide whether to file an appeal?
  • Will you represent me on my appeal?
  • Do I have legal issues I can only raise in a habeas corpus motion?

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