Is the Virginia Court of Appeals adopting a more lenient view of when a defendant is entitled to withdraw a guilty plea?
Virginia defense attorneys frequently lament the difficulty of withdrawing an ill-advised guilty plea entered by a criminal defendant. Virginia’s case law has indicated that trial courts should liberally grant such motions since at least 1949, when the Virginia Supreme Court decided Parris v. Commonwealth, where it held that:
“the withdrawal of a [pre-sentence] plea of guilty should not be denied in any case where it is in the least evident that the ends of justice will be subserved by permitting not guilty to be pleaded in its place. The least surprise or influence causing a defendant to plead guilty when he has any defense at all should be sufficient grounds for permitting a change of plea from guilty to not guilty.Leave should ordinarily be given to withdraw a plea of guilty if it was entered by mistake or under a misconception of nature of the charge; through a misunderstanding as to its effect; through fear, fraud, or official misrepresentation; was made involuntarily for any reason; or even where it was entered inadvisedly, if any reasonable grounds is offered for going to the jury.” 189 Va. 321, 325 (1949).
In practice, Virginia’s trial courts have been less liberal in granting motions to withdraw guilty pleas, and the appellate courts have been inconsistent in their treatment of the issue. For example, in Bottoms v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 23 (2011), the Supreme Court overruled the Court of Appeals and ordered a new trial for a defendant who had asked to withdraw his guilty plea. The trial court and the Court of Appeals had both held that Bottoms’ proffered defense – that he had not acted with fraudulent intent in a case of contract fraud – was merely formal and did not merit the withdrawal of his plea. As the Supreme Court noted, nothing could have been more central to a case of contract fraud than whether the defendant intended to defraud the alleged victim. That the Court of Appeals rejected this obviously substantial defense led some observers to believe that the Court of Appeals was demanding not just that the defendant have a defense, but that he have a good or believable defense.
The Court of Appeals seems to have reconsidered in light of the Bottoms case. This week, in Hubbard v. Commonwealth (published May 15, 2012), the Court of Appeals made clear that the quality of the proffered defense is irrelevant when a trial court is deciding whether the defendant has a defense that would merit allowing him to withdraw his guilty plea to go to trial.
Hubbard was charged with first degree murder and plead guilty. He fired his attorneys and moved to withdraw his guilty plea so that he could have a trial, claiming that he had not acted with premeditation and that he was guilty only of second degree murder, and that he had plead guilty only because his attorneys had pressured him to do so. The Court held that:
“Hubbard asserted that he had a reasonable defense in that his motion was based on his claim that he lacked premeditation. In response, the Commonwealth points to the plethora of evidence in the record supporting a finding of premeditation, but this argument misses the point. The issue is not whether a court thinks a jury or other factfinder would necessarily accept the defense, but rather whether the proffered defense is one that the law would recognize as such if the factfinder found credible the facts supporting it. As discussed in Bottoms, the issue of premeditation is an issue for the factfinder to decide, and the defendant is entitled to put on a reasonable defense if he has one. During the hearing on the motion, Hubbard testified that he did not act with premeditation. Based on this testimony alone, a reasonable juror could believe Hubbard’s testimony and find that the act was not premeditated.”
This case, if it is not reversed by the Virginia Supreme Court, should make it substantially more likely that criminal defendants can withdraw guilty pleas in the future.