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 that have been brought against him or her by the state or by the United States.
In further detail, the three types of pleas that a defendant may enter include:
- 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 had some sort of benefit. For instance, a good reason could mean that a guilty plea would be exchanged for a favorable sentence. Another good reason could be that additional charges would be brought against the defendant unless he or she plead guilty within a certain time frame.
- Not Guilty: The most common of criminal court pleas, pleading not guilty is a complete denial of any guilt. Pleading not guilty—even if the person believes they are 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 or disagrees with the charges against him or her. Though this may sound appealing to a defendant because it is not a guilty plea, it can come with serious consequences.
Notedly, if a defendant fails to enter a plea or fails to appear in court, a guilty plea will automatically be entered.
Plea bargaining is the process of making an agreement between the prosecution and the defense in order 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.
There are several steps involved in entering a guilty or no contest plea. In order for the court to accept either a guilty or no contest plea, the defendant must be placed under oath and he or she 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 his or her constitutional rights, including the right to trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to cross examine his or her accusers in a court of law; and
- The penalties associated with a guilty plea or a plea of no contest.
The court will also ensure that the defendant’s plea was voluntary, and was not made under duress or coercion, nor did it result from any type of threat.
Finally, the court must determine that there is 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.
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 has not yet been accepted by the judge.
A defendant may also be able to withdraw his or her 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 their 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 an obvious injustice.
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, if it is discovered that the plea was entered into involuntarily, or that the defendant did not understand their charges and the effects of an admission of guilt, a judge may allow an appeal.
If you have been accused of a crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights, and help you build a case in your defense. Your attorney will also be able to represent your best interests in court, and provide guidance on your best course of action.