Superior Court says Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo does not mean it is nearly impossible to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing, and provides a potential road map for successful motions to withdraw

Commonwealth v Islas, 2017 PA Super 43 (2/24/17)

Two and a half years ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Commonwealth v. Carrasquillo, 115 A.3d 1284 (Pa. 2015) seemed to make it impossible to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing unless it was supported by  a credible claim of innocence,. The Superior Court, in a decision that must be read by anyone drafting a pre-sentence motion to withdraw guilty plea or litigating a PCRA motion about failure to file one, has pared that interpretation of Carrasquillo. The case provides a road map for anyone filing a pre-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea

Ms. Islas pled guilty in return for the dropping of some charges and sentencing was deferred. Guilty plea counsel withdrew and new counsel entered an appearance and filed a motion to withdraw guilty plea, based on claimed innocence, six weeks before the scheduled sentencing.   At the hearing on the motion, Ms. Islas stated he did not commit the crime, if he had there would have been witnesses, the victim had a motive to fabricate the charges, there was a delay in reporting the first criminal episode, he had never been accused of similar acts and he had a clean record. He also stated prior counsel did not tell him he could call character witnesses, and other available defenses. The sentencing court denied the motion, in part because of prejudice to the Commonwealth— something the Commonwealth did not present evidence on at the hearing on the motion— and sentenced him.

The Superior Court opined that courts have overreacted to Carrasquillo. It delved into the facts of Carrasquillo, indicating how unusual they were, including the fact that the defendant therein had made “bizarre” claims of innocence and only sought to withdraw his plea after all the sentencing evidence had been received and sentence was about to be pronounced. Mr. Islas, however, had made a detailed claim of innocence and proffered a good explanation about why he changed his mind about pleading guilty. The lower court also erred in finding prejudice to the Commonwealth when no supporting evidence or claim was presented at the time the motion to withdraw was tendered. The opinion tightens and clarifies what the Commonwealth must prove to show that it was prejudiced by having to bring the case to trial after the tendering and acceptance of the plea, i.e., in a worse situation trying to prove a case than it would have been if the case had already been tried. The panel opinion further stated, “That Islas’ claim of innocence may fail at trial is not a valid ground for denying his motion.”

The Court concluded the sentencing court erred in denying the motion to withdraw guilty plea. This is an important case for anyone contemplating filing a pre-sentence motion to withdraw guilty plea or litigating a failure to file one in a PCRA proceeding.

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