Latest discussion of a defendant’s ability to withdraw Guilty Plea

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

State v. Diaz.   November 2, 2016

Several years ago the New Jersey Supreme court established a significantly greater burden when a defendant wants to withdraw his/her former guilty plea.  Trial courts were required to advise defendants at the time of their plea that once the plea was accepted, having determined that the defendant made a knowing and voluntary waiver of his rights and was not forced, coerced or threatened in any manner, s/he will have to show some substantial issue by clear and convincing evidence, that the plea should be vacated enabling the defendant to proceed to trial.

In this case, State v. Diaz, the defendant appealed to vacate his guilty plea, advancing three arguments:

  1. his mental illness precluded him from possessing the requisite mens rea to “purposely” commit the offense of robbery;
  2. his mental illness also precluded him from having the capacity to knowingly and voluntarily waiving his rights as part of his plea, despite his certification to the contrary; and
  3. his plea counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him that his mental illness could be a defense to his charge.

In other words, the defendant was attempting to argue that he did not have the ability, based on his alleged mental illness, to make a  knowing and voluntary waiver of his rights at the time of the plea as well as to possess the mental capacity to commit the offense in question.  The court first noted that, as to defendant’s third argument, he had yet to properly raise the claim in a petition for post-conviction relief. However, because defendant’s assertions had not been presented to the trial court, the court held that the proper course of action was to remand the matter to the trial court to determine whether defendant should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea under the criteria in State v. Slater , 198 N.J. 145. The court noted that defendant’s mental illness raised a “colorable claim of innocence” regarding the mens rea element of his robbery charge, specifically citing defendant’s colloquy statement that he had been hallucinating at the time of his offense. Accordingly, the court remanded the matter for defendant to file a plea withdrawal motion, and to concurrently file a PCR petition to allege ineffective assistance of plea counsel.

 

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