Can I undo, vacate, or withdraw my guilty plea in New Jersey?
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
In evaluating motions to withdraw a guilty plea, trial courts should consider the following factors: (1) whether the defendant has asserted a colorable claim of innocence; (2) the nature and strength of defendant's reasons for withdrawal; (3) the existence of a plea bargain; and (4) whether withdrawal would result in unfair prejudice to the State or unfair advantage to the accused. State v. Slater, 198 N.J. 145, 150 (N.J. 2009). Motions filed at or before the time of sentencing will be granted in the "interests of justice," R. 3:9-3(e); post-sentencing motions must meet a higher standard of "manifest injustice" to succeed, R. 3:21-1. Id. at 156.
Under either the interest of justice or manifest injustice standard, a plea may only be set aside in the exercise of the court's discretion. State v. Simon, 161 N.J. 416, 444 (1999). No factor is mandatory and if one is missing, that does not automatically disqualify or dictate relief.” Slater at 162.
What does that mean in plain English ?
Basically, our Courts conduct a Slater analysis with the factors mentioned above. When the motion is submitted before sentencing, the Court applies the interest of justice standard in its analysis. After sentencing, the Court applies the manifest injustice standard in its analysis. For the sake of clarity, manifest injustice is a greater burden to overcome between the two. Accordingly, timing matters with regards to your motion to vacate your guilty plea. Notwithstanding the above, there are several practical considerations that influence the Slater analysis. And remember, all is within the Court’s discretion which ever standard the Court applies in your motion.
Consideration #1: Do I want to withdraw a guilty plea on a traffic offense or a guilty plea on an indictable offense (known as “felonies” everywhere else in the United States) ?
If you plead guilty via mail to a traffic ticket, unaware of the DMV consequences, then the Judge may exercise his or her discretion to vacate your plea. Do understand that “change of heart” is not grounds to withdraw your guilty plea. You need to articulate a valid, legal, and coherent reason as to why the Court should vacate your plea. For an indictable offense, you would need to support your motion with extensive caselaw to explain to the Court why it should vacate your guilty plea after allocution. Allocution is the set of questions that the Judge, prosecutor, or your attorney ask you prior to your guilty plea. There are few scenarios where a defendant would be able to apply for relief. Otherwise, the allocution language has withstood the test of time and is thorough for a good reason.
Consideration #2: When did I submit my motion to vacate my guilty plea ?
For example, if you waited months before motioning to the Municipal Court to vacate your traffic offense guilty plea then the Court may not grant it. One, because you had ample time to motion to the Court after the plea. More importantly, two, your application would be placing a greater burden on the administrative process. The general rule is... if you want to withdraw your plea, make a motion sooner than later because not only is the “interest of justice” (before sentencing) standard lower than that of the “manifest injustice” (after sentencing) standard. As stated above, an older withdrawal request comes with significant additional administrative burdens.
Practical Consideration #3: How likely am I to prevail in a motion to vacate or withdraw my guilty plea?
An experienced attorney may assist you in explaining the likelihood of success on your motion. For instance, if you were in Superior Court accused of an indictable offense, had an attorney assist you throughout the process, properly warned and advised of the consequences of your plea, then you need solid legal grounds as to why the Court should vacate your guilty plea. If you see the factors mentioned above, in that scenario, the attorney can emphasize that you had a colorable claim of innocence and that the interest balance is in your favor to withdraw your guilty plea.
If you are in Municipal Court on a traffic matter, then it would mostly depend on the position of that specific municipal court. In addition to emphasizing to the Court that this application consists of more than “changing one’s mind” on the plea. Usually the Municipal Courts are more inclined to provide relief, if an individual plead guilty without having an opportunity to negotiate a plea with the Municipal Court prosecutor, and have plead guilty without counsel via mail.
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