“How do you plead?” It’s not just a phrase we hear on popular court television programs. The defendant’s plea to the charges is a pivotal moment in any criminal court case, and can have a profound effect on the outcome. From the moment you are charged, you should be asking an experienced attorney, “What are my plea options?” The answer to that question can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal, and it can also have an effect on the severity of your sentence if you are convicted.
WHAT IS A PLEA?
Simply put, a plea is your formal answer to the charges against you, which is written into the court documents. In our court system, you have the legal right to answer to the charges against you before trial proceedings commence. It might seem like a formality, but your plea actually determines what happens next. It’s very important that you discuss plea options with your criminal defense attorney ahead of time to determine the right plea strategy for your case.
HOW CAN YOU PLEAD?
When you’re charged with a crime, you can generally plead in one of four ways (and sometimes five):
You can plead guilty.
Fully admitting to the crime. In this case, you are effectively waiving your right to a trial and putting yourself at the mercy of the court. A guilty plea typically requires court approval because our court system demands that your rights be protected, and if you’re going to waive those rights, the courts want to be sure you understand what you’re doing, and what the consequences might be.
You can plead no contest (nolo contendere).
This means you are accepting punishment for the crime without admitting guilt. No contest pleas typically result in the same wavier of your rights as a guilty plea (so you’ll also need court approval), but denying guilt can be beneficial in certain cases.
You can refuse to enter a plea.
By default, to protect your rights, the courts will treat this as a plea of “not guilty” (see below).
You can plead not guilty.
This is the most common plea, and it opens the door for you to be tried by a jury of your peers. Most defense attorneys recommend this plea, especially if they believe they can demonstrate reasonable doubt to a jury.
In some cases, you can plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
In this case, you claim that you committed the crime, but that you were not in your right mind when doing so. The underlying premise is that you can’t be punished for committing a crime if you had no cognizance of the difference between right and wrong. This plea can be effective in certain cases where mental health is a factor, but it can put you under severe scrutiny, subjecting you to multiple mental examinations to determine whether an insanity plea is valid. Also, even if the court finds in your favor, you will likely still lose your freedom; you’ll just be sent to a mental institution rather than prison.
OTHER PLEA OPTIONS
In certain cases, your attorney may recommend negotiating a plea bargain or plea agreement. This means you agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for leniency (usually by dropping additional charges or by reducing the sentence). This strategy can be useful if the evidence against you is strong, if there are multiple charges, or if you’re willing to cooperate with the government in prosecuting other defendants who might have been involved.
Additionally, in certain circumstances, a plea bargain or guilty/no contest plea is not necessarily the end of the road. If there is evidence that you admitted guilt under duress or coercion, or that you were not fully aware of your rights at the time, your attorney may appeal a guilty or no contest plea.
For more information and advice concerning all your plea options, contact the Federal Criminal Law Center and speak to one of our experienced attorneys.