In criminal law, the term plea refers to a defendant’s answer to legal charges or a legal declaration. A defendant can enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest to charges brought against them by the state or the United States.
What Are the Different Types of Criminal Pleas?
The following are three types of pleas that a defendant may enter:
- Guilty: A guilty plea is a complete admission of guilt and a waiver of rights. Most defense attorneys would not advise a defendant to plead guilty unless doing so had some sort of benefit. For instance, a guilty plea may be exchanged for a favorable sentence. Another good reason to plead guilty could be that additional charges would be brought against the defendant unless they plead guilty within a specific time frame.
- Not Guilty: The most common criminal court pleas, pleading not guilty, is a complete denial of any guilt. Even if the person believes they are guilty, pleading not guilty will allow the defense time to examine and review the discovery (information on the crime that the prosecutor must provide to the defense) associated with the case.
- Nolo Contendere (no contest): A no contest plea means that the defendant neither agrees nor disagrees with the charges against them. Though this may sound appealing to a defendant because it is not a guilty plea, it can have serious consequences.
A guilty plea will automatically be entered if a defendant fails to enter a plea or fails to appear in court.
Plea bargaining is the process of agreeing with the prosecution and the defense to settle the case.
Commonly, the defendant will agree to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge(s). This usually means less punishment, and any plea bargains are subject to the court’s approval.
The Court Must Consent to a Guilty or No Contest Plea
There are several steps involved in entering a guilty or no contest plea. For the court to accept either a guilty or no contest plea, the defendant must be placed under oath, and they must understand the following:
- The defendant must acknowledge that they understand their constitutional rights, including the right to counsel;
- The nature of the charges;
- The waiving of their constitutional rights, including the right to trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to cross-examine their accusers in a court of law; and
- The penalties are associated with a guilty plea or a plea of no contest.
The court will also ensure that the defendant’s plea was voluntary and not made under duress or coercion, nor did it result from any type of threat.
Finally, the court must determine a factual basis for the defendant to plea in such a manner. To do so, the court will investigate the evidence, and if there is reasonable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the plea will be accepted.
Withdrawing a Guilty or No Contest Plea
In some circumstances, it may be possible to withdraw a guilty plea or no contest plea. Usually, a defendant can withdraw a guilty plea that the judge has not yet accepted.
A defendant may be able to withdraw their guilty plea if sentencing has not yet occurred and if the judge rejects the plea bargain to which the defendant has pleaded.
For instance, if a defendant pleads guilty to burglary in exchange for a lighter sentence of two years, but the judge intends on sentencing him to four years, it may be possible to withdraw the guilty plea.
A post-sentence withdrawal of a guilty or no contest plea is unlikely. A judge will usually only allow a plea withdrawal if there is a blatant injustice.
Right to Appeal a Guilty or No Contest Plea
In exchange for a better deal, a plea of guilty or no contest usually means a defendant waives their right to appeal the plea.
However, suppose it is discovered that the plea was entered involuntarily, or the defendant did not understand their charges and the effects of a guilty plea. In that case, a judge may allow an appeal.
What Are Peremptory Pleas?
Peremptory pleas claim that a case cannot proceed for one reason or another. They are called peremptory pleas because rather than being an answer to the question of guilt or innocence, they are a claim that guilt or innocence should not be considered.
Peremptory pleas include:
- Autrefois convict: under the doctrine of double jeopardy, the accused has been previously convicted or acquitted of the same charge and cannot be tried again.
- Plea of pardon: where the accused has already been pardoned for the offense.
What Happens When No Plea is Entered?
A defendant who refuses to enter a plea is usually interpreted as giving a plea of not guilty. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure state if a defendant refuses to enter a plea or if a defendant fails to appear, the court must enter a plea of not guilty. If a defendant enters some unorthodox plea, it is usually interpreted as a plea of not guilty.
What Are Special Pleas?
Special pleas used in criminal cases include:
- Mental incompetence
- Challenging the jurisdiction of the court over the defendant’s person
- The plea in bar
- Attacking the jurisdiction of the court over the crime charged
- Plea in abatement (used to address procedural errors in bringing the charges against the defendant)
Special pleas in federal criminal cases have been abolished. Defenses formerly raised by special plea are now raised by a motion to dismiss.
Conditional pleas are ones where the defendant pleads guilty to an offense but specifically reserves the right to appeal certain aspects of the charges. For example, a defendant may reserve the right to appeal that evidence was illegally obtained.
Malingering or faking an illness during a competency evaluation has been considered an obstruction of justice and may lead to an enhanced sentence. Even if you plead guilty, you may not be awarded a reduction in your sentence because faking an illness is considered to mean that you do not accept responsibility for illegal behavior.
What is a Plea in Mitigation?
A plea in mitigation is a term used during criminal law proceedings. It typically involves a lawyer telling a judge of extenuating circumstances that could result in lesser sentences for an offender.
What is an Arraignment?
An arraignment is typically the first court date you will have in any criminal case after you post bond. Arraignments are where you plead guilty, no contest, or not guilty. If you have retained a legal team before your arraignment date, your presence at the arraignment should not be necessary. Your lawyer will have filed a written plea on your behalf.
What Can You Do If You Are Accused of a Crime?
If you have been accused of a crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer will advise you of your rights and help you build a case in your defense. Your attorney will also represent your best interests in court and guide your best course of action. Use LegalMatch today to find the right criminal defense attorney for you.