Ask the Arlington – Fairfax Lawyer: Can I Withdraw My Guilty Plea?

A person usually cannot withdraw his guilty plea absent a very good reason.  As a recent case shows, the fact that a judge rejects a sentencing recommendation embedded in a plea bargain is not a “good reason.”  This case is a good illustration of the fact that there are different forms of plea agreements — ones that are binding on a court and ones that are not.  Defendants should definitely understand and appreciate the differences.

In this case, Lashon Pritchett pled guilty to statutory rape, forcible sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery of a minor in violation of Code §§ 18.2-61(A), 18.2-67.1(A), and 18.2-67.3.  Facing multiple life terms, plus 20 years in prison, his lawyer negotiated a good plea agreement with the prosecutor.  Pursuant to the agreement, the prosecutor would recommend a specific sentence — 8 years in prison — if he pled guilt.  Mr. Pritchett’s lawyer assured him that the judge would accept the recommendation.

Unfortunately for this defendant, the judge rejected the recommendation, stating that it was too lenient.  Mr. Pritchett changed lawyers and promptly filed a motion to withdraw his guilty pleas.  The judge denied the motion and, at sentencing, ordered 25 years of active prison — more than triple the amount in his plea bargain. He appealed.

The Court of Appeals of Virginia noted that Mr. Pritchett had signed a plea agreement form indicating that he knew the judge could increase the punishment.  The judge also directly told him of this possibility before accepting the guilty plea.  Nonetheless, Mr. Pritchett argued that he lawyer’s assurances gave him confidence.  The appellate court held that he could not withdraw his guilty plea under these circumstances.

Not all plea agreements in Virginia are subject to this procedure wherein a judge can pocket a guilty plea and impose a sentence well above the agreed penalty.  Under Rule 3A:8 (c) (1) (C), a prosecutor and defense attorney can enter into a plea agreement for a specific sentence.  Under this rule, if the judge wishes to impose a higher sentence, the plea agreement would be revoked and the defendant could withdraw his plea and the case would be heard by a different judge.  However, Mr. Pritchett pled guilty under Rule 3A:8 (c) (1) (B).  This form of plea bargaining does not permit one to withdraw his guilty plea if the judge doesn’t accept the plea agreement lock, stock, and barrel.

The case is Pritchett v. Commonwealth, No. 0830-12-3 (April 16, 2013).