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“HOW DO YOU PLEAD?” A Guide To The 4 Common Types Of Pleas In Criminal Cases

Apr 29, 2024 | Criminal

In the realm of criminal law, the concept of pleas plays a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of legal proceedings and outcomes for defendants. A plea is essentially an individual’s formal response to criminal charges brought against them, indicating whether they admit guilt or maintain innocence.

Understanding the various types of pleas is crucial for defendants; what you plea can significantly impact the course of your case and its potential consequences. With a comprehensive grasp of each of the different plea options, you can gain insight into the strategic choices that may influence your sentencing, negotiations, and overall case strategy if you are facing criminal charges.

As always, it is crucial that you trust the guidance of your defense attorney, as they likely have years of experience with a variety of types of cases and a thorough knowledge of the criminal justice system. They will always recommend that you plead in a way that puts you in the best position for the most beneficial outcome.

However, with more insight from this blog, you may better understand the significance of pleas and be empowered to make informed decisions with the aid of your attorney in the face of legal challenges.

1. Not Guilty Plea

While the technical definition of a not-guilty plea is self-explanatory and simply means that the defendant denies the charges brought against them, there are actually a few reasons a defendant might plead in this manner, including:

  • They are not guilty of the crime they have been charged with
  • They need additional time to weigh their options and consult with an attorney
  • They want to take part in the discover process and see evidence the prosecution has before deciding on how to proceed, or
  • They have yet to negotiate an agreement with the prosecution successfully.

The prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in cases of a not-guilty plea. If you choose this path, you will have additional court dates and gain time to obtain legal representation, as well as for your attorney to then analyze the evidence against you. You have the choice to later change your not-guilty plea to a plea of guilt or plea of no contest.

2. Guilty Plea

Once again, this plea is rather self-explanatory; a guilty plea means you are admitting to the charges brought against you and that you have no defense or excuse for the act. You may have heard of the commonly-used phrase, “innocent until proven guilty,” which is a presumption of innocence for all citizens accused of a crime as directly derived from the U.S. Constitution. Essentially, it means that the government, through its prosecutors, carries the burden of proving that you committed the act you are accused of.

By entering a guilty plea, you are relieving the prosecutor of that burden and no longer requiring them to bring evidence against you to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, you also waive your right to fight for the dismissal of the charges against you or for an acquittal, and will ultimately be convicted.

Though this type of plea always results in a conviction, your attorney may see this as the most effective course of action for you to achieve the best possible outcome and take advantage of a plea bargain offered by the prosecutors. In many cases, prosecutors will offer you an incentive to plead guilty because it allows them to avoid the effort of going to trial and get a quick conviction, ultimately making their job easier. Note that you cannot enter a guilty plea and later reverse it.

3. Nolo Contendere (No Contest) Plea

A nolo contendere, or no contest, plea is very similar to a guilty plea in the way that the defendant is convicted of the crime they are charged with and punished. However, what distinguishes the two pleas is that the defendant neither admits guilt or maintains innocence in a plea of no contest. So why would a person accept conviction and punishment for a crime they do not admit guilt to? There are a few reasons.

The first is that pleading no contest allows you to avoid admitting guilt, which therefore means it can’t be used as an admission of liability in a related civil case. In other words, you know that the prosecution has a strong case and that you will likely be found guilty if a trial ensues. But, because a related civil case is pending, admitting guilt essentially serves to admit your liability, as well. The second reason is that a no contest plea may be viewed more favorably as compared to a guilty plea, thereby influencing your sentencing.

On the other hand, pleading no contest has its drawbacks; mainly, that your conviction will mirror that of a guilty plea. Additionally, the penalties you may face for any future convictions could be enhanced. Finally, by entering this type of plea you are surrendering any opportunity to contest the charges and present a defense to a jury.

4. Alford Plea

The Alford plea is named after the 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford, in which a man named Henry Alford faced the death penalty for allegedly committing murder. There was a lot of solid evidence against Alford which didn’t give him much hope for his desired verdict. So, in order to avoid the death penalty, he accepted a plea bargain in which he would plead guilty, but maintained his innocence of the crime.

The consequences of an Alford plea are the same as pleading guilty or no contest: the court still treats it as a guilty plea and imposes a criminal sentence, and you will still have a conviction on your criminal record. The Alford plea is similar to pleading no contest in the way that it could benefit your defense in a civil suit you may be implicated in stemming from the same incident which brought about your charges (for some, it is also a matter of integrity or practicality in terms of expenses). However, while a “no contest” plea is neither admitting or denying guilt, an Alford plea essentially states that you are innocent of your charges but you acknowledge the reality that the prosecution could convict you at trial.

Your defense attorney may recommend an Alford plea based on your circumstances and the strength of the prosecution’s evidence against you. It may make it possible for them to negotiate a more favorable outcome on your behalf this way, as opposed to going to trial and being found guilty.

The Way You Plead Matters

Pleas are a major part of an attorney’s defense strategy. They will carefully calculate the potential outcomes and measure the risk up against the reward in order to recommend the most favorable path forward. If you haven’t yet sought representation, you should contact our firm right away. Our lead attorney, Javier Alatorre, has 20 years of legal experience with the criminal justice system and has consistently achieved the most optimum results for his clients. Call today to schedule your initial consultation, which is completely free and confidential, to learn more about how we can serve you.

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