The majority of criminal cases are resolved through the plea bargain process. During plea bargaining, the defendant may plead guilty, usually in exchange for less serious charges or a lighter sentence. Once a guilty plea has been entered by a criminal defendant, they are convicted automatically of the crime. They are then sentenced, and the case is closed.
However, in some cases, a “conditional plea” may be entered by a criminal defendant. A conditional plea allows the defendant to request that the court review specific legal issues before the plea can be enforced.
In a conditional plea, the defendant is essentially stating to the court, “I may be guilty, but there are some legal issues that should be reviewed before I am pronounced guilty”. A conditional plea can also allow a defendant to withdraw their previous plea of guilty or no contest, and proceed with more hearings on the questionable issues.
Once the conditional plea is entered, the court will then review the specific legal issues that were requested by the defendant. If the court finds that the defendant is guilty, they will then be sentenced. However, if the defendant is found not guilty, then the trial will be over and the case closed.
The procedure for submitting a conditional plea is usually laid out in the court’s rules. The requirements may be different according to state, and may depend on whether the case is being held in a state or federal court.
Generally speaking, most courts follow federal rules, which state that the defendant must:
- Obtain the consent of both the government and the court to enter the conditional plea. That is, conditional pleas are not a guaranteed right and must be specifically requested. There is usually a court form for this request.
- Submit in writing the specific legal issues or questions that the defendant wishes to have reviewed. Again, there is usually a section in the request form where the defendant can state which issues need to be resolved.
As a rule, conditional pleas always need to be submitted in writing. There are some exceptions to requirement that conditional pleas be in writing (such as record of a previous plea agreement). However, it is always best that conditional pleas be reduced to writing, even if there is no standard court form for the request.
That way, the defendant has a written record of their request. In some jurisdictions, failing to submit the request in writing means that the defendant has effectively waived their right to enter a conditional plea.
As mentioned, the purpose of a conditional plea is to allow the court to review any legal issues that need resolving. These are usually major issues that could “make or break” a defendant’s case. Some of these legal issues may include:
- The statute of limitations (the time when the case may be filed) may have expired, and the trial should not proceed
- There has been a delay between arrest and trial, thus violating the defendant’s 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial
- A request for a “motion to suppress evidence” may have been wrongfully denied, which may potentially allow evidence to be used that was obtained illegally by the police
There may be different legal issues that a defendant wishes to have reviewed in connection with the conditional plea. Whatever the issue, the defendant needs to indicate this clearly in writing.
The main advantage of conditional pleas is that they have the potential to end a case early. For example, after reviewing the legal issue(s) in question, the defendant may be found not guilty based on the court’s determination. This can save both the prosecution and defense counsel valuable time, resources, and money that would have been used if a full-blown trial were required.
Finally, conditional pleas can sometimes help the court avoid or correct errors in relation to such matters as evidence or testimonies.
In any criminal trial, the defendant has the right to a lawyer. If you need assistance with a conditional plea, an experienced criminal lawyer can help you request one in writing. The laws governing conditional pleas may be different in each individual court, so you may need the assistance of a lawyer when entering a conditional plea.