New opinion: Third Circuit upholds denial of plea withdrawal

U.S. v. James—criminal—affirmance—Jordan

A Virgin Islands man with no criminal record and a third-grade education pled guilty to conspiracy to sell drugs. Several months later, he sought to replace his lawyer, asserting that counsel had coerced into pleading guilty. New counsel was appointed and quickly moved to vacate the man’s plea, asserting entrapment by an informant. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that entrapment did not justify withdrawal of a guilty plea because it was merely legal innocence not factual innocence.

Today, the Third Circuit rejected the district court’s reasoning but affirmed anyway. First, the court held that the plea agreement’s waiver of appellate challenges to his sentence was not a waiver of challenges to his conviction including denial of motion to withdraw his plea. Second, joining the majority of a lopsided circuit split, the court held that an assertion of legal innocence such as entrapment can support withdrawal of a guilty plea. Here the court clarified that its 2001 Brown decision rejected an effort to withdraw a guilty plea based on insufficiency of the evidence, not legal innocence.  But third, it held that the defendant’s entrapment claim was factually insufficient to make the district court’s denial of plea withdrawal an abuse of discretion.

Joining Jordan were Smith and Rendell. Arguing counsel were Daniel Lader of Florida for the defendant and Sigrid Tejo-Sprotte for the government.