When May a Maryland Court Vacate a Guilty Plea?

What is a plea agreement? Essentially it is a contract between a criminal defendant and the State in which the defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere on a charge. The court may accept or reject the agreement, but if it approves the agreement it must follow the terms and interpret it such that the integrity of the agreement is preserved.

Plea agreements are advantageous for some defendants. They can reduce exposure, remove or limit the stress of hearings and trials, and start the correctional process. They can also be advantageous for the State because trials are expensive and if there is no significant issue of guilt, it does not make sense to expend judicial and prosecutorial resources on them.

When is a Maryland court allowed to vacate a guilty plea? There are occasions in which a guilty plea may be vacated by the court. One reason for vacating a guilty plea is that the defendant obtained the plea agreement via fraud or misrepresentation. This occurs, for example, when a defendant agrees to be honest with the government about his involvement, but instead lies and withholds information.

In a recent case, a Maryland appellate court considered whether vacating a criminal defendant’s guilty plea was appropriate in light of his fraud on the court. The defendant, along with others, beat a couple in a Bethesda parking garage. The defendant pled guilty to first degree assault with the understanding that he had no prior adult criminal history. When it came time for the hearing on his plea, the defendant denied certain facts and admitted others. The judge accepted his plea agreement and ordered a mandatory pre-sentencing investigation meeting, advising the defendant he would hold it against him if he didn’t show up.

The defendant failed to show up for the meeting and when ordered to appear for sentencing, fled to El Salvador, Uruguay and then Puerto Rico with a co-defendant. Six months later, he was brought to Maryland. The State asked the court to vacate the plea, as if it had never been entered. The court found that when the defendant pled guilty, he had never intended to cooperate with the pre-sentencing investigation agent or attend his sentencing. He had lied to the court. Accordingly, the court vacated the sentence. The defendant appealed the court should not have vacated his deal for not appearing at sentencing.

The appellate court did not buy the defendant’s argument. It reasoned that based on the short window of opportunity within which he pled guilty and fled, he must have planned to flee the country with his co-defendant when entering into the plea agreement. The court also explained that the test for determining what a defendant would reasonably understand at the time of plea is objective, not subjective.

Any reasonable defendant would have know that appearing for the pre-sentencing investigation meeting and the sentencing hearing were a condition of the plea agreement. Even though the court did not explicitly say the agreement would be vacated for failure to meet specific terms, the court’s statement that it would “hold it against” the defendant was sufficient.

If you have been accused of or charged with a crime, contact an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney to get the best defense for your case. Contact Anthony A. Fatemi and his legal team for a consultation at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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The Voluntary Intoxication Instruction, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 25. 2013

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