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Can a Plea Deal be Nullified?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 04, 2024

Suppose you're facing criminal charges in California, and the evidence against you is reasonably compelling. In that case, your attorney may attempt to negotiate a plea deal—or, in some cases, the prosecution may offer such a deal. 

In a plea agreement, you agree to plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for having other charges dropped or lenient sentencing. 

A plea deal can be an excellent strategy for reducing the penalties you might otherwise incur if your case were to go to trial. As a general rule, after you plead guilty to a criminal charge, the terms of the agreement are binding, and you cannot back out of the plea deal just because you change your mind.

Can a Plea Deal be Nullified in California?
In California, a plea agreement with the District Attorney can be nullified in three ways.

However, while plea deals are generally considered binding, there are situations when they may be reversed or nullified. You (the defendant), the prosecutor, or a judge can initiate the process of reversing the plea deal

A plea agreement can be nullified in three ways: filing a motion to withdraw, the prosecution changing its mind before the deal is final, or a judge rendering it null and void.

Penal Code 1018 PC says, “Unless otherwise provided by law, every plea shall be entered or withdrawn by the defendant in open court. No plea of guilty of a felony for which the maximum punishment is death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole shall be received from a defendant who does not appear with counsel, nor shall that plea be received without the consent of the defendant's counsel. 

No plea of guilty of a felony for which the maximum punishment is not death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole shall be accepted from any defendant who does not appear with counsel unless the court shall first fully inform him or her of the right to counsel and unless the court shall find that the defendant understands the right to counsel and freely waives it, and then only if the defendant has expressly stated in open court, to the court, that he or she does not wish to be represented by counsel. 
The court may suspend the entry of judgment on the defendant's application at any time before judgment or within six months after an order granting probation is made. 

In the case of a defendant who appeared without counsel at the time of the plea, the court shall, for a good cause shown, permit the plea of guilty to be withdrawn and a plea of not guilty to be substituted. Counsel may make a guilty plea upon indictment or information against a corporation. This section shall be liberally construed to affect these objects and to promote justice.

How Can You File a PC 1018 Motion to Withdraw a Plea?

Under California Penal Code 1018 PC, defendants can withdraw their guilty or no contest plea under certain conditions. 

This legal provision is crucial for defendants who may have entered a plea without fully understanding the implications, under duress, or without competent legal representation. 

To initiate this process, the defendant must file a motion to withdraw the plea, which typically requires demonstrating good cause. Examples of scenarios which might constitute “good cause” might include:

  • The defendant was not fully informed of the consequences of their plea or the rights forfeited.
  • The plea was entered under duress, coercion, or undue pressure, including scenarios where the defendant felt compelled to plead guilty due to threats or promises outside the formal plea agreement.
  • Ineffective assistance of counsel, where the defendant's attorney failed to competently advise them of their options or the ramifications of a plea.
  • The presence of a mental health condition or disorder that significantly impaired the defendant's ability to make a voluntary, informed decision at the time of the plea.
  • New evidence has emerged that fundamentally alters the nature of the case or the defendant's culpability, which was not available or known at the time of the plea.

When Can a Motion to Withdraw Be Filed?

Generally speaking, you can only file a motion to withdraw a plea:

  • Before the court accepts your guilty plea or
  • Before the court imposes a sentence.

However, exceptions exist, especially if new evidence significantly impacts the case's dynamics. The court then reviews the motion, considering whether the defendant has presented a valid reason for withdrawal and whether granting the motion would serve the interests of justice.

What if the Prosecution Backs Out?

Though less common, there are scenarios where the prosecution may decide to withdraw from a plea agreement. This can only occur before the plea is entered and accepted in court. Common reasons why the prosecutor might have a change of heart:

  • New evidence comes to light that significantly alters the case.
  • The defendant is believed to have provided false information during negotiations.
  • A procedural error occurred that made the plea invalid.
  • The prosecution believes that the plea deal no longer serves the interests of justice.

Note that it's rare for prosecutors to back out of a plea deal, typically because the American Bar Association considers it unethical to do so once it's been offered with a reasonable expectation of acceptance. However, it does happen on occasion. In these instances, the defense can negotiate a new plea deal or prepare to contest the charges at trial. 

What if a Judge Rules It Void?

A plea deal is a contract between the defendant and the prosecution, enforceable by the court. If a defendant fails to adhere to the agreement's terms in some way, the judge has the authority to declare the plea deal void. Common violations of a plea deal may include:

  • Failing to appear at court-ordered meetings.
  • Failing the required drug tests.
  • Failing to fulfill community service obligations or
  • Committing another crime.

What Happens When a Plea Deal Is Nullified?

If a plea deal is reversed before it is finalized, the original charges will apply, and the benefits offered in the plea agreement are forfeited. Unless your attorney negotiates a new plea deal, you may be vulnerable to harsher penalties if you are found guilty at trial. 

Just as you should not agree to a plea deal without your attorney's advice, you should consult with your attorney to understand the full ramifications of withdrawing your plea before filing a motion to do so. 

What If You Violate the Terms of the Plea Deal?

Suppose you enter into a plea deal with the district attorney but later violate a term of the agreement. In that case, the judge has the legal authority to reverse the plea bargain.

Once a plea agreement is made, it will outline the consequences for violating the set terms and conditions. Depending on the case, violations of a plea bargain agreement could result in the following: 

  • A warning only,
  • A reversal of the plea deal,
  • Fines and court costs assessed,
  • Additional sentencing terms,
  • Immediate incarceration. 

Suppose the plea bargain included a suspended jail sentence. In that case, the judge could impose that jail sentence as punishment for failing to follow the terms of the plea bargain.

Notably, if you have a valid excuse for violating the terms of the plea bargain, the judge might give you a break and dismiss the violation. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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