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Beginner's Guide to "Pleas" - Part 1

Guilty, Not Guilty, No Contest. . . we hear those words, but what do they really mean?

When charges get formally filed, by way of a Criminal Citation, Notice of Appearance, or Information, the first event that takes place is an Arraignment. At Arraignment, a person can decide to resolve their case or set it for trial. (See our guide to Court Dates). In some instances, even when the case is set for trial, trial may not be in your best interest. (See our guide to Trial). A good example is a theft case where a person is caught on video, caught at the store, and makes a confession to the store employee. When the facts simply do not work in your favor, and to avoid a harsher penalty if you go to trial when the facts are "bad," what may be in your best interest is to resolve the case with a plea agreement or plea to the bench.

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What is a Plea?

/plē/ (noun) A "Plea" is a formal statement by or on behalf of a defendant or prisoner, stating guilt or innocence in response to a charge, offering an allegation of fact, or claiming that a point of law should apply.

What is a Plea Agreement?

A Plea Agreement is a contract that a Defendant enters into instead of going to Trial with the Prosecutor. A Defendant waives their right to have a Prosecutor prove the facts of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. They give up their right to fight the case - present their own evidence, witnesses, and have an attorney cross-examine the State's witnesses. For some, a Plea Agreement makes sense because it removes the risk. You know what the outcome will be for the case. You know what the sentence will be. Prosecutors are the ones driving the prosecution of the case. They can also dismiss charges/counts or change the charges you plea to in order to "sweeten the deal" as long as there are facts to support those different charges.

What is a Plea to the Bench?

A Plea to the Bench is very similar to a plea agreement, except instead of making a deal with the Prosecutor, the Defendant can accept what the Judge is "offering" to resolve a case, which is often a better sentence than what the Prosecutor is offering, or it can be a "blind plea." A "blind plea" is where the Defendant enters a plea but doesn't know what the sentence will be until the Judge announces it on the record. This can be intimidating and scary at times because you are taking a chance that the Judge will give you a better sentence than what the offer is, and in the majority of cases they will. Having an attorney who is knowledgeable about the Judge and their sentencing habits is essential when entering into a "blind plea." Remember, a Judge CANNOT dismiss charges, cases, or counts without a legal basis to do so, unlike a Prosecutor.

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For Part 1 of our Guide - Here are a few Legal terms that you need to understand when it comes to Pleas...

At Arraignment, a person can enter a "plea" of Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest (Nolo Contendre). NOT GUILTY - This means "I deny the charges, I want this set for trial." Most attorneys automatically enter this plea on their client's behalf because we want to have an opportunity to review the evidence so our client can make an educated decision about what is in their best interest. Entering a plea of Not Guilty doesn't automatically mean that a Trial will take place. After Arraignment, a person can enter a "Change of Plea" from Not Guilty to either Guilty or No Contest to resolve the case. GUILTY - This means "I did it, go ahead and sentence me." Pretty straight forward, right? A Guilty plea admits guilt to the charges. In some instances entering a Guilty plea can have a wider effect on other areas that your case might touch - for example, if you were charged with Battery (causing harm to a person) and that person was suing you, a Guilty plea could be used against you in a Civil Lawsuit. If you don't want to admit Guilt, then you should go to trial. NO CONTEST/ NOLO CONTENDRE - This means "I don't admit it, I don't deny it, but go ahead and sentence me." In this instance a person usually enters a plea of No Contest because they have decided not to contest the evidence against them. Often it is a plea of best interest, meaning that you aren't admitting guilt, but you don't want a trial so you have decided that resolving the case with a plea bargain is in your best interest. OR, as indicated with a Guilty plea - a person may enter a plea of No Contest because of an ongoing Civil Law Suit. Keep in mind that even when entering a plea of No Contest, you are still accepting responsibility for a crime, it will be on your record, and you will still be sentenced. Again, if you don't want to take responsibility, go to Trial. In Part 2, our blog will talk about Sentencing and related Legal Terms. If you have any questions about this post, contact us at Colbert Law - (407) 705-3220.