Senator arrested at airport may have grounds for withdrawing guilty plea

Several legal experts say while it's typically difficult to get a court to throw out a guilty plea, there are unique circumstances in Craig's case that give him an advantage.

Larry Craig says he only pleaded guilty in order to move on with his life, not because he was guilty of any charges. Craig originally faced the charge of interference of privacy, a gross misdemeanor.

The state offered him a deal -- instead of going to trial, plead guilty to a lesser crime such as disorderly conduct. Craig took the deal and sent in his signed guilty plea by mail.

Pleading guilty to a crime is serious business. It is something the courts take very seriously because a person is waiving constitutional rights. One of those rights is the right to an attorney.

In Craig's plea petition, there was no such reference to waiving the right to an attorney, a reference that's common language in most plea agreements.

That's a significant defect, according to University of Minnesota Law professor Steve Simon, who teaches criminal law and runs the misdemeanor defense clinic at the U of M. He says the burden is on the state to show that Craig's guilty plea was valid.

"Because he was unrepresented at the prior plea, and because of the tremendous importance and value we put on the constitutional right to an attorney -- one of those bedrock constitutional rights -- the plea petition will be looked at very carefully should he bring a motion to withdraw," Simon said.

The airport police officer read Craig his rights, known as Miranda rights. But those rights apply to interrogations; plea agreements are separate events.

Unlike Craig's case, most defendants pleading guilty to a crime do so before a judge. By asking questions of the defendant, the judge determines whether the person is voluntarily pleading guilty, and whether he or she knows the charges to which they're pleading.

Craig's case highlights a unique part of Minnesota law that allows defendants of misdemeanors to plead guilty by mail, without going before a judge.

Hennepin County's chief public defender, Len Castro, says that means Craig has an opening to argue that he did not validly waive his rights and plead guilty.

"On a written, mail-in plea, the court can't really satisfy itself of all those cautionary measures," according to Castro. "As I would look to litigate something like this, I mean that certainly would be one of the issues I would raise."

Defense attorney Bill Mauzy agrees. He says most of the time it's difficult to get a court to throw out a guilty plea. But he says there are unique circumstances in this case.

"When you have a defendant that's asserting his innocence and asking to withdraw the plea, and when that's combined with the lack of an attorney and the lack of a court appearance, I think he's got a good shot at getting a withdrawal. If the plea's withdrawn, he's committed himself to go to trial," he said.

If Craig succeeds in withdrawing his guilty plea, the case does not end there. His original charges come back, and he's essentially committed himself to go to trial.