Can You Withdraw a Guilty Plea in Utah?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

Everyone knows that defendants have to enter a plea. What fewer people realize is that in some circumstances, you can also withdraw a plea — even if you already pleaded guilty. In this article, drug defense lawyer Darwin Overson explains the criteria for withdrawing a guilty plea in Utah.

Types of Criminal Pleas Defendants Can Enter

Before we examine the various types of criminal pleas, it’s very important to emphasize that you should always consult with an attorney before you accept a plea bargain, enter or withdraw a plea, or indeed make any legal decisions pertaining to your case. If you act without a full understanding of your options — and their potential consequences — you could inadvertently give up rights or incriminate yourself, increasing the risk of fines, prison, and other criminal penalties. With that in mind, let’s examine the different types of pleas which are recognized by Utah’s courts.

law courtroom with scales of justice

It’s a very common misconception that plea options are limited to “guilty” and “not guilty.” In reality, the issue is more complex than simply confirming or denying the charges. Under Rule 11(b), the Utah judiciary actually recognizes five types of pleas:

  • Not Guilty — You deny the charges.
  • Guilty — You confirm the charges. Even if you think you may be found guilty, it is critical to discuss your options with your lawyer first. Remember, you are considered innocent until the prosecutor is able to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof falls on the prosecutor to demonstrate your guilt. This is established by the Due Process clauses contained in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
  • No Contest — This type of plea is also called nolo contendere, Latin for “I do not wish to contend.” This means you neither deny nor confirm the charges. While the effect is similar to a guilty plea, the key difference is that a no contest plea can protect you against a civil lawsuit (e.g. being sued for assault injuries). Under Rule 11(c), you must have consent from the court to enter this type of plea.
  • Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) — Utah has some of the strictest NGRI standards in the nation, and the defendant’s mental health must be evaluated by experts from the Department of Human Services.
  • Guilty and Mentally Ill — If a defendant enters this plea, he or she may be sent to the Utah State Hospital for a psychological examination. Under Utah Code § 77-16a-104(3), even if the court finds the defendant to be mentally ill, it can still “impose any sentence that could be imposed… upon a defendant who does not have a mental illness and who is convicted of the same offense.”

What Happens if I Plead Guilty, Then Change My Mind?

Certain courts will accept a plea called a “plea in abeyance” for certain offenses. In this scenario, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, but the plea is held in abeyance, or temporary suspension, for up to one year. If the defendant is able to remain arrest-free and to comply with all rules and conditions set by the court during this time period, the charges will be dismissed and the defendant will not receive a criminal record. A defendant who enters a plea in abeyance gives up certain Constitutional rights, including the right to an attorney and the right to a trial by jury.

While the abeyance period can be as long as one year, a guilty plea in abeyance cannot be withdrawn unless the defendant files a written motion within 30 days of pleading no contest or guilty. If the defendant is not informed of this fact, Rule 11(f) will allow for the time limit to be extended.

judge holding gavel and surrounded by scale of justice and law books

Critically, the defendant must also be able to show that the plea was either involuntarily or unknowingly made, meaning the defendant either didn’t understand that he or she was waiving certain Constitutional rights, or didn’t understand the nature of the charges and their consequences. Rule 11 tries to prevent this from happening by stating that defendants must be made aware of certain facts at the time they enter their plea. For instance, “If the defendant pleads guilty, no contest, or guilty and mentally ill to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence [e.g. simple assault in Utah]… the court shall advise the defendant orally or in writing that, as a result of the plea, it is unlawful for the defendant to possess, receive or transport any firearm or ammunition.” (See our previous article about your gun rights after a criminal conviction for more information on firearms and domestic violence charges.)

If someone you love was arrested in Salt Lake City or the surrounding area, it is crucial to make sure their Constitutional rights are being aggressively protected by a knowledgeable and experienced defense attorney. Darwin Overson has more than 16 years of experience handling a wide variety of misdemeanors and felonies on behalf of juveniles and adults, and has argued thousands of motions during his many years practicing criminal law. To set up a free and confidential legal consultation with Darwin, call the law offices of Overson Law at (801) 733-1308 today.

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