Defendants can sometimes plead guilty, and appeal nevertheless.
Believe it or not, the prosecution and defense occasionally agree (more or less) on the facts underlying criminal charges. Plea bargains regularly arise from these scenarios. But sometimes the parties agree on what happened, agree on the parameters for punishment, yet can’t agree on whether a conviction is appropriate.
“On One Condition”
A conditional plea occurs when the defendant pleads guilty or no contest but reserves the right to have an appeals court decide whether the judge reached the wrong ruling on an issue that’s central to the case. If the appellate court determines that the judge was in fact wrong, the defendant can withdraw the plea.
Conditional pleas are available in federal court and in many states. Typically, though, the prosecution and the judge must agree to them. (The agreement with the prosecution may have to be in writing.) The defendant may be able to enter a conditional plea of “no contest,” or the law might require that the plea be “guilty.”
EXAMPLE OF A CONDITIONAL PLEA
Walter owns and lives on a farm. Police officers go to his farm without a warrant and seize 50 potted marijuana plants, which they find interspersed with corn in a garden 75 yards from his house. The prosecution charges him with trafficking in marijuana; their case rests entirely on the seized plants.
Walter brings a motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the plants were within the “curtilage” of his house, meaning that the officers needed a warrant for their search. But the trial judge finds that the area in question, even though belonging to Walter, was far enough from his house and sufficiently undeveloped to constitute an “open field.” She therefore finds that the search didn’t require a warrant, and that the evidence is admissible.
Walter’s attorney arranges for a conditional plea, whereby Walter reserves the right to appeal the judge’s ruling on the motion to suppress. If the appellate court agrees with him that the search was illegal and the evidence inadmissible, it will send the case back to the trial court, Walter will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, and the prosecution will have to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
If the law in the state in question doesn’t allow for conditional pleas or the prosecution or court won’t agree to one, the options are limited. If the defendant insists on reserving an issue for appeal and refuses to enter a plea free of conditions, the judge may have to enter a “not guilty” plea on his or her behalf.
On the other hand, defendants sometimes have a right to appeal certain rulings even if their pleas weren’t conditional. For instance, in a few states, defendants, despite having pleaded guilty, automatically may appeal denials of motions to suppress. (But see Can you lose the right to appeal a ruling by taking a plea deal?) And, regardless of the state, appeals may be possible in other kinds of plea-bargain situations—where, for example, there was ineffective assistance of counsel.
Talk to a Lawyer
To find out whether a conditional plea is available—and a good idea—in your situation, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An attorney with experience in your area should be able to fully advise you of the law, the procedure, and your options.