PART H. Plea Procedures
Rule 590. Pleas and Plea Agreements.
(1) Pleas shall be taken in open court.
(2) A defendant may plead not guilty, guilty, or, with the consent of the judge, nolo contendere. If the defendant refuses to plead, the judge shall enter a plea of not guilty on the defendants behalf.
(3) The judge may refuse to accept a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and shall not accept it unless the judge determines after inquiry of the defendant that the plea is voluntarily and understandingly tendered. Such inquiry shall appear on the record.
(B) PLEA AGREEMENTS.
(1) When counsel for both sides have arrived at a plea agreement, they shall state on the record in open court, in the presence of the defendant, the terms of the agreement, unless the judge orders, for good cause shown and with the consent of the defendant, counsel for the defendant, and the attorney for the Commonwealth, that specific conditions in the agreement be placed on the record in camera and the record sealed.
(2) The judge shall conduct a separate inquiry of the defendant on the record to determine whether the defendant understands and voluntarily accepts the terms of the plea agreement on which the guilty plea or plea of nolo contendere is based.
(C) MURDER CASES.
In cases in which the imposition of a sentence of death is not authorized, when a defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere to a charge of murder generally, the degree of guilt shall be determined by a jury unless the attorney for the Commonwealth elects to have the judge, before whom the plea was entered, alone determine the degree of guilt.
The purpose of paragraph (A)(2) is to codify the requirement that the judge, on the record, ascertain from the defendant that the guilty plea or plea of nolo contendere is voluntarily and understandingly tendered. On the mandatory nature of this practice, see Commonwealth v. Ingram, 455 Pa. 198, 316 A.2d 77 (1974); Commonwealth v. Campbell, 451 Pa. 198, 304 A.2d 121 (1973); Commonwealth v. Jackson, 450 Pa. 417, 299 A.2d 209 (1973).
It is difficult to formulate a comprehensive list of questions a judge must ask of a defendant in determining whether the judge should accept the plea of guilty or a plea of nolo contendere. Court decisions may add areas to be encompassed in determining whether the defendant understands the full impact and consequences of the plea, but is nevertheless willing to enter that plea. At a minimum the judge should ask questions to elicit the following information:
(1) Does the defendant understand the nature of the charges to which he or she is pleading guilty or nolo contendere?
(2) Is there a factual basis for the plea?
(3) Does the defendant understand that he or she has the right to trial by jury?
(4) Does the defendant understand that he or she is presumed innocent until found guilty?
(5) Is the defendant aware of the permissible range of sentences and/or fines for the offenses charged?
(6) Is the defendant aware that the judge is not bound by the terms of any plea agreement tendered unless the judge accepts such agreement?
(7) Does the defendant understand that the Commonwealth has a right to have a jury decide the degree of guilt if the defendant pleads guilty to murder generally?
The Court in Commonwealth v. Willis, 471 Pa. 50, 369 A.2d 1189 (1977), and Commonwealth v. Dilbeck, 466 Pa. 543, 353 A.2d 824 (1976), mandated that, during a guilty plea colloquy, judges must elicit the information set forth in paragraphs (1) through (6) above. In 2008, the Court added paragraph (7) to the list of areas of inquiry.
Many, though not all, of the areas to be covered by such questions are set forth in a footnote to the Courts opinion in Commonwealth v. Martin, 455 Pa. 49, 54-55, 282 A.2d 241, 244-245 (1971), in which the colloquy conducted by the trial judge is cited with approval. See also Commonwealth v. Minor, 467 Pa. 230, 356 A.2d 346 (1976), and Commonwealth v. Ingram, 455 Pa. 198, 316 A.2d 77 (1974). As to the requirement that the judge ascertain that there is a factual basis for the plea, see Commonwealth v. Maddox, 450 Pa. 406, 300 A.2d 503 (1973) and Commonwealth v. Jackson, 450 Pa. 417, 299 A.2d 209 (1973).
It is advisable that the judge conduct the examination of the defendant. However, paragraph (A) does not prevent defense counsel or the attorney for the Commonwealth from conducting part or all of the examination of the defendant, as permitted by the judge. In addition, nothing in the rule would preclude the use of a written colloquy that is read, completed, signed by the defendant, and made part of the record of the plea proceedings. This written colloquy would have to be supplemented by some on-the-record oral examination. Its use would not, of course, change any other requirements of law, including these rules, regarding the prerequisites of a valid guilty plea or plea of nolo contendere.
The terms of the plea agreement, referred to in paragraph (B)(1), frequently involve the attorney for the Commonwealthin exchange for the defendants plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and perhaps for the defendants promise to cooperate with law enforcement officialspromising concessions such as a reduction of a charge to a less serious offense, the dropping of one or more additional charges, a recommendation of a lenient sentence, or a combination of these. In any event, paragraph (B) is intended to insure that all terms of the agreement are openly acknowledged for the judges assessment. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Wilkins, 442 Pa. 542, 277 A.2d 341 (1971).
The l995 amendment deleting former paragraph (B)(1) eliminates the absolute prohibition against any judicial involvement in plea discussions in order to align the rule with the realities of current practice. For example, the rule now permits a judge to inquire of defense counsel and the attorney for the Commonwealth whether there has been any discussion of a plea agreement, or to give counsel, when requested, a reasonable period of time to conduct such a discussion. Nothing in this rule, however, is intended to permit a judge to suggest to a defendant, defense counsel, or the attorney for the Commonwealth, that a plea agreement should be negotiated or accepted.
Under paragraph (B)(1), upon request and with the consent of the parties, a judge may, as permitted by law, order that the specific conditions of a plea agreement be placed on the record in camera and that portion of the record sealed. Such a procedure does not in any way eliminate the obligation of the attorney for the Commonwealth to comply in a timely manner with Rule 573 and the constitutional mandates of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963), and its progeny. Similarly, the attorney for the Commonwealth is responsible for notifying the cooperating defendant that the specific conditions to which the defendant agreed will be disclosed to third parties within a specified time period, and should afford the cooperating defendant an opportunity to object to the unsealing of the record or to any other form of disclosure.
When a guilty plea, or plea of nolo contendere, includes a plea agreement, the 1995 amendment to paragraph (B)(2) requires that the judge conduct a separate inquiry on the record to determine that the defendant understands and accepts the terms of the plea agreement. See Commonwealth v. Porreca, 595 Pa. 46, 595 A.2d 23 (1991).
Former paragraph (B)(3) was deleted in 1995 for two reasons. The first sentence merely reiterated an earlier provision in the rule. See paragraph (A)(3). The second sentence concerning the withdrawal of a guilty plea was deleted to eliminate the confusion being generated when that provision was read in conjunction with Rule 591. As provided in Rule 591, it is a matter of judicial discretion and case law whether to permit or direct a guilty plea or plea of nolo contendere to be withdrawn. See also Commonwealth v. Porreca, 528 Pa. 46, 595 A.2d 23 (1991) (the terms of a plea agreement may determine a defendants right to withdraw a guilty plea).
For the procedures governing the withdrawal of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, see Rule 591.
Paragraph (C) reflects a change in Pennsylvania practice, that formerly required the judge to convene a panel of three judges to determine the degree of guilt in murder cases in which the imposition of a sentence of death was not statutorily authorized. The 2008 amendment to paragraph (C) and the Comment recognizes the Commonwealths right to have a jury determine the degree of guilt following a plea of guilty to murder generally. See Article I, § 6 of the Pennsylvania Constitution that provides that the Commonwealth shall have the same right to trial by jury as does the accused. See also Commonwealth v. White, 589 Pa. 642, 910 A.2d 648 (2006).
Rule 319 (a) adopted June 30, 1964, effective January 1, 1965; amended November 18, 1968, effective February 3, 1969; paragraph (b) adopted and title of rule amended October 3, 1972, effective 30 days hence; specific areas of inquiry in Comment deleted in 1972 amendment, reinstated in revised form March 28, 1973, effective immediately; amended June 29, 1977 and November 22, 1977, effective as to cases in which the indictment or information is filed on or after January 1, 1978; paragraph (c) added and Comment revised May 22, 1978, effective July 1, 1978; Comment revised November 9, 1984, effective January 2, 1985; amended December 22, 1995, effective July 1, 1996; amended July 15, 1999, effective January 1, 2000; renumbered Rule 590 and Comment revised March 1, 2000, effective April 1, 2001; amended September 18, 2008, effective November 1, 2008.
Committee Explanatory Reports:
Final Report explaining the December 22, 1995 amendments published with the Courts Order at 26 Pa.B. 8 (January 6, 1996).
Final Report explaining the July 15, 1999 changes concerning references to nolo contendere pleas and cross-referencing Rule 320 published with the Courts Order at 29 Pa.B. 4057 (July 31, 1999).
Final Report explaining the March 1, 2000 reorganization and renumbering of the rules published with the Courts Order at 30 Pa.B. 1477 (March 18, 2000).
Final Report explaining the September 18, 2008 amendments to paragraph (C) concerning juries determining degree of guilt published with the Courts Order at 38 Pa.B. 5431 (October 4, 2008).
The provisions of this Rule 590 amended September 18, 2008, effective November 1, 2008, 38 Pa.B. 5429. Immediately preceding text appears at serial pages (318661) to (318662) and (303693) to (303694).
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