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Can a defendant withdraw a guilty plea in a criminal case?

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In December of 2017, United States Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (Ret.) appeared in federal court to formalize a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to plead guilty to a felony count of "willfully and knowingly" making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russia shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

In June 2019, General Flynn engaged new counsel, then attempted to withdraw his guilty plea in January 2020. The United States Department of Justice announced in May 2020 that it was dropping all charges against him, but a federal court judge ordered the matter to be placed on hold.

Senior District Judge Jed S. Rakoff explained some of the reasons that people plead guilty:

‘The ... suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: it is much more like a “contract of adhesion” in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party.... [T]he prosecutor-dictated plea bargain system, by creating such inordinate pressures to enter into plea bargains, appears to have led to a significant number of defendants to plead guilty to crimes they never actually committed. [Jed S. Rakoff, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2014).’”

Case No. 20-5143 in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit addresses the legality of a defendant asking to withdraw his guilty plea and the right of the prosecutors to dismiss a prosecution when they believe it would be problematic to proceed.

Here is breakdown of the case timeline:

  • January 14, 2020: General Flynn filed a motion for leave to withdraw his guilty plea due to "the government's bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement."
  • January 29, 2020: General Flynn filed a Motion to Dismiss Case for Egregious Government Misconduct. Attorney General William P. Barr tasked Jeffrey Jensen, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to conduct a review of how the Flynn case had been handled by the Department of Justice during the same month.
  • Week of May 4, 2020: Jensen recommended to the Attorney General that the prosecution be dismissed.
  • May 7, 2020: the Department of Justice moved to dismiss the charges against Flynn.

Amicus briefs provided to the court

This Court later allowed third parties to weigh in. Amicus briefs were filed by:

  • Edwin Meese III. Meese served as the 75th Attorney General of the United States. He currently serves as the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
  • Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is a not-for-profit organization incorporation in Washington D.C. and regularly files amicus briefs in critical public policy cases.

To read the entire case No. 20-5143 docket, click here.

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The attorneys at Brewer, Pritchard & Buckley, P.C. are experienced at handling cases involving healthcare fraud litigation, white collar criminal defense, and business law. We have helped businesses, corporations, and professionals across the U.S. protect their reputations and defend their rights since 1991. Contact us online to learn how we can help you.

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