Defendants Must Sign Plea Petitions, Attorneys Should Not Sign on Their Behalf

As crazy as it sounds, defendants must sign plea petitions, attorneys should not sign on their behalf. Since COVID hit March 2020, the court system underwent a drastic change to video hearings. More than two years later, many courts are still conducting hearings over Zoom. Because many attorneys were, and are, not meeting with many clients in person, they would tell judges that they are signing plea petitions on their client’s behalf – even with their client’s permission.

Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals said that is a bad idea in State v. Lawrence. The result was a reversal to allow the defendant to withdraw his guilty plea. In this case, there was a hearing over video. The defendant was present over video and consented that his attorney could sign the plea petition on his behalf. The Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure provide two options for valid guilty pleas in misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases: (1) a person to be present (even over video) at a hearing and undergo questioning; or (2) submit a plea petition signed by the defendant with the understanding and knowledge required under the rule.

To be valid, a guilty plea must be accurate, voluntary, and intelligent. In this case, the district court judge asked the defendant at the video hearing if he was okay with proceeding in his case by submitting a plea petition. And, if a plea petition was submitted, then there would not be another hearing. The judge also mentioned that the defendant needed to review any plea agreement that he received. The disconnect was that the defendant never signed the plea petition, because he let his attorney do so. And, that he did not plead guilty on the record with the judge at the hearing. The statements made at the hearing did not establish a voluntary and intelligent plea.

It is risky business to be signing plea petitions on behalf of a defendant. This firm categorically will not do so. There are electronic signature programs that can be utilized in this digital age. Even when it is difficult to schedule in-person meetings because of COVID, work schedules, or if a client lives in another state, the court will accept an electronic signature. Plea petitions also require the defendant to assert that they discussed the plea petition with their attorney. The petitions also require defense attorneys to sign the document attesting that they explained the contents of the petition to the defendant. A person’s criminal record, liberty, and livelihood are at stake. Explaining the plea petition to them, and having them actually sign the document, is a step that attorneys need to take. Far too often, we see other lawyers doing things in court that are mimicked from other attorneys. If one person does it, why can’t I? Subverting a person’s constitutional rights and cutting corners is not what lawyers aspired to achieve when they took their oath to uphold the law.

It is very possible that the defendant in Lawrence was told by his attorney exactly what the terms of the plea petition were and all the constitutional rights he was giving up. It is possible that the defendant was just looking for a way to back out of his guilty plea and used this as a reason to do it. But, that is even more reason to make sure the defendant is actually signing the petition. Courts may become skittish about accepting any plea petitions that are not accompanied by a hearing where the defendant voluntarily and intelligently enters their plea of guilty, even though the rules allow for it, if done properly. To make sure your constitutional rights are being protected, and for consultation at no charge, contact us by phone or text at: 612-547-3199. You can also reach us by email at:

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI attorney in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him Super Lawyer this year and a Rising Star the previous six years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Lawyer Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Minneapolis MN; and Criminal Appeal Attorney Minnesota.