In certain situations, a criminal defendant may choose to enter a conditional plea of guilty or no contest to his criminal charge. Under a conditional plea, the defendant will maintain his rights to appeal a number of constitutional or evidentiary issues.
The plea is conditioned upon a ruling from the New Mexico appellate courts. If the appeal is successful then the plea is effectively withdrawn and the case will proceed as directed by the appellate court. If the defendant loses on appeal, then the plea is binding and the trial court will proceed to sentencing.
Conditional pleas are used in a variety of situations. The conditional plea offers important protections for defendants and provides a check on the prosecution to insure compliance with the rules of procedure, the rules of evidence and the U.S. and New Mexico constitutions.
A conditional plea will often be entered when there are significant constitutional issues related to the arrest or prosecution. Conditional pleas are frequently entered where the defendant will reserve the right to appeal 4th Amendment search and seizure issues. They may be used for violation of the rights to counsel, speedy trial rights and 6th Amendment allows for confrontation of witnesses in criminal trial as well.
Each of these rights under the U.S. and New Mexico constitutions are closely protected. And each provide, particularly search and seizure, speedy trial rights and confrontation rights provide the most effective grounds for defense. Violation of these constitutional rights also provides the most common grounds for suppression of evidence and the dismissal of criminal actions.
Success on appeal on a conditional plea does not guarantee a dismissal. Often times, certain evidence will be suppressed on appeal making it impossible for the prosecution to proceed with the case. Other times, the suppression will not completely undermine the prosecution’s case but simply weaken it. Thus, the defendant may succeed at the appellate level and be returned to the trial court for a trial with the evidentiary restrictions set forth by the appellate court.
Whether the appeal results in an outright dismissal or results in the case simply going back to the trial court, suppression of evidence is generally to the advantage of the defendant. Thus, where there are significant constitutional and evidentiary issues suggesting appeal, the defendant should reserve these rights where he or she can.
In cases where the constitutional issues are weak, the prosecutor may not agree to the conditional plea instead forcing the defendant to trial. Where the issues are clearly present, the prosecutor is more likely to entertain a conditional plea since the prosecution will often also have an interest is settling the evidentiary issues prior to trial.