Coerced Guilty Pleas in Florida

June 5, 2015

In criminal proceedings, a defendant’s plea can be taken back up until the time of sentencing. Once the defendant enters a plea and the court pronounces the sentence, the plea is final and cannot be changed. But if the defendant is coerced into pleading guilty to a crime, he or she can challenge the legality of the plea.

Plea Bargains

Plea bargains can be beneficial both to the defendant and to the state. If a defendant pleads guilty, the state saves time and money on a trial, and the prosecutor gets a conviction. In return, the prosecutor will likely recommend a less harsh sentence for the defendant, and the defendant avoids having to go through the expense and stress of a trial.

But sometimes, a prosecutor will be so intent on getting the offender to agree to a plea bargain that the prosecutor will coerce the offender into pleading guilty. This is illegal, and can result in the defendant having a trial or a new sentence being imposed.

Voluntariness

Guilty pleas must be voluntary. Pleading guilty has serious consequences for a defendant. Most importantly, the defendant is convicted of a crime and sentenced, which can include jail time. Additionally, pleading guilty means giving up certain rights, such as the right to a jury trial and the right to confront witnesses. Thus, criminal defendants must not be tricked or pressured into pleading guilty.

There are several circumstances that may lead to a guilty plea being involuntary. For example:

  • Threats are made against the defendant or against someone he or she knows. For example, if an attorney threatens to quit if the client does not accept the plea, or if the prosecution lacks probable cause but threatens to prosecute unless the defendant accepts the deal.
  • The defendant is induced by improper promises. For example, the prosecution promises a certain sentence, but knows or should know that the judge will not give that sentence.
  • The prosecution conceals exculpatory evidence, which is evidence that tends to show that the defendant is innocent.
  • The defense attorney is unprepared or has a conflict, so the defendant lacks the effective assistance of counsel.
  • The judge is heavily involved in crafting the plea deal and the defendant fears the judge’s retaliation if he or she does not take the bargain.
  • The defendant is not mentally competent at the time of taking the deal.

Not all promises and threats qualify as coercion. For example, it is legal for a prosecutor to promise to drop some charges in exchange for a guilty plea on others, or to promise to recommend a certain sentence to the judge. It is also permissible to threaten to prosecute a defendant’s family member, as long as there is probable cause in the case, if the defendant does not accept the plea deal.

Get Help Dealing With a Criminal Charge

If the plea is involuntary, the conviction and sentence are thrown out. But this does not mean that the defendant goes free. Usually, there is a jury trial to decide if the defendant is guilty. There may also be a new plea deal or new sentencing hearing.

Criminal law is a complex area. Those who are dealing with a criminal charge need the advice of an experienced attorney to ensure that their rights are protected. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.