Fifth Circuit Overrules Denial of Motion for Plea Withdrawal
Gardner's Case And Plea Agreement
Gardner was charged with meth crimes. He hired an attorney and engaged in litigation. He told his attorney he wanted to file a motion to suppress. Gardner indicated that his attorney told him a motion to suppress would be filed after the entering of the plea.
Gardner Files a Motion for Plea Withdrawal
Gardner kept asking about the motion to suppress. When the lawyer told him the motion was no longer an option, Gardner asked for new counsel.
Gardner asked for new counsel to be appointed because he felt misled by his lawyer. He claimed his lawyer told him the objections to the Presentence Investigation Report had been filed and his lawyer gave inconsistent information about the “availability of audio or video footage of the search that led to his arrest.” The court appointed another attorney to represent Gardner.
Ultimately, the new attorney filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea, stating that Gardner “wishe[d] to withdraw his guilty plea based o[n] his desire to file a motion to suppress that his former attorney did not file.”
The court denied the motion to withdraw the plea without a response from the government and without an evidentiary hearing.
The court sentenced Gardner to 240 months in prison and 6 years supervised release. Gardner filed an appeal asking the Fifth Circuit to send the case back to the district court for an evidentiary hearing.
Plea Withdrawal Motions
A defendant may withdraw a guilty plea after the court accepts the plea, but before it imposes a sentence, if he “can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.”
Courts have a factor-based test that they use to determine this:
(1) whether the defendant asserted actual innocence;
(2) whether withdrawal of the plea would prejudice the government;
(3) the extent of the defendant’s delay, if any, in filing the motion to withdraw;
(4) whether withdrawal would substantially inconvenience the court;
(5) whether the defendant was benefitted by the close assistance of counsel;
(6) whether the guilty plea was knowing and voluntary; and
(7) the extent to which withdrawal would waste judicial resources.
Gardner indicated he was not benefitted by the close assistance of counsel and that his plea was not knowing and voluntary. The Fifth Circuit had to evaluate whether the district court failed “to permit a defendant to withdraw a plea rendered involuntary due to counsel’s ineffective assistance.”
The court determined that in order to test this the court would need to evaluate whether “(1) that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness,” and (2) that “counsel’s constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process.”
Gardner alleged his counsel advised him he could file a suppression motion after entering a plea. If true, this is very wrong:
“It is well settled that an unconditional guilty plea ordinarily waives the right to challenge all non-jurisdictional defects in the trial court proceedings, including any objection to searches and seizures that violate the Fourth Amendment. At the same time, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure clearly lay out the method for entering a conditional plea.”
The court also determined that prejudice had been met if Gardner’s allegations were true:
“As for prejudice, Gardner argued that he would not have pleaded guilty had he known that he was waiving his right to file a motion to suppress, believing that his suppression motion would eviscerate the Government’s case against him. While we cannot from our perch evaluate the merits of this allegation, it satisfies Strickland’s prejudice prong, if true.”
As a result of this, the district court abused their discretion by denying the motion without a hearing. The Fifth Circuit vacated the court’s denial of the motion plea withdrawal.