The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Isla, No. 1270 EDA 2016 (March 31, 2016), holding that the trial court erred in refusing to allow Islas to withdraw his plea before sentence and finding, instead, that Islas’ assertion of innocence constituted such a “fair and just reason” for that withdrawal.

Isla was charged with three counts of Indecent Assault – Complainant Less than 13. Three days before trial, Islas entered a guilty plea to one count of Indecent Assault – Complainant Less than 13, a first-degree misdemeanor. In exchange for his plea, the Commonwealth agreed to nolle pros the other two counts.

The trial court scheduled sentencing for March 31, 2016. On February 11, 2016, counsel for Islas withdrew from representation and new counsel entered his appearance. That same day, Islas filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, chiefly based on an assertion of innocence. On February 25, 2016, following a hearing, the trial court denied Islas’ motion to withdraw, and on March 31, 2016, sentenced Islas to 183 days (time served) to 5 years, less 1 day, of imprisonment.

Islas appealed, claiming that the trial court erred or otherwise abused its discretion in denying Islas’ pre-sentence motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

At the hearing on his motion to withdraw, Islas testified that: he did not engage in the charged conduct; he had maintained his innocence when interviewed by law enforcement; had the conduct occurred as alleged, it would have been witnessed by other campers and counselors in the cabin at the time; the victim had a motive to fabricate the charges; the victim had delayed in reporting the first incident; and Islas was of good character, had no criminal record, and had never received a similar complaint in the many years he had been working in the field. Islas further testified that his new counsel had explained to him, as prior counsel had not, his available defenses, including his ability to call character witnesses on his behalf.

The Superior Court reviewed the trial court’s ruling on a pre-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea for an abuse of discretion. Specifically, the Superior Court discussed the differing standards between post-sentence and pre-sentence requests to withdraw guilty pleas.

The Superior Court found that the trial court applied the far more exacting post-sentence standard of “manifest injustice” to Isla’s request to withdraw his plea. Post-sentence motions for withdrawal are subject to higher scrutiny since courts strive to discourage entry of guilty pleas as sentence-testing devices. In post-sentence cases, a defendant must demonstrate that manifest injustice would result if the court were to deny his post-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea.

A defendant seeking to withdraw his or her plea pre-sentencing need not prove his or her innocence. In such cases, the defendant need only proffer a “colorable” or “plausible” claim of innocence, which Islas has surely done. In other words, the question to be determined is whether the accused has made some colorable demonstration, under the circumstances, such that permitting withdrawal of the plea would promote fairness and justice.

Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that Islas was entitled to such solicitude because his colorable claim of innocence constituted a “fair and just” reason for withdrawal of his plea.

However, the inquiry did not end there since Isla would still not be entitled to withdraw his plea if, at the time of the motion, such withdrawal would have “substantially prejudiced” the Commonwealth. In the guilty plea context, “substantial prejudice” requires a showing that, due to events occurring after the plea was entered, the Commonwealth is placed in a worse position than it would have been had trial taken place as scheduled. Prejudice cannot be equated with the Commonwealth being made to do something it was already obligated to do prior to the entry of the plea.

The Superior Court concluded that the trial court’s finding of “substantial prejudice” was unsupported by the record in this case. The Commonwealth affirmatively chose not to present evidence concerning witness availability at the hearing, resting instead on the argument that Islas had not offered a fair and just reason to withdraw his plea. Thus, the Commonwealth – having chosen not to proffer evidence of substantial prejudice – could not attempt to establish such prejudice by mere speculation in an appellate brief. In the absence of actual evidence of an adverse impact on the Commonwealth’s ability to try this particular case, such speculation does not supersede a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial.

Accordingly, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in not allowing Islas to withdraw his guilty plea.


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