Criminal Law

Entering a Plea to Criminal Charges

If an individual, or defendant, is charged with a crime, he must give an answer to the charge. The defendant's answer to a criminal charge is called a plea. The plea will help determine which direction the criminal process will go.

The defendant usually enters a plea at the arraignment. An arraignment is a proceeding before the court where the charges are formally read to him. The most common pleas are guilty, not guilty and no contest. In a plea of no contest, the defendant neither admits nor disputes the criminal charges.

In order for a plea to be entered, the court must accept the plea from the defendant. Since a plea of guilty means that the defendant admits to the crime, the court has certain qualifications before accepting it. The court won't accept a guilty plea unless it determines that the:

  • Defendant has the capacity to enter the plea
  • Defendant is knowingly and intelligently entering into the plea
  • Plea is voluntarily entered into
  • Defendant admits to conduct that constitutes the charged crime

Capacity to Enter Plea

The court must determine if the defendant has the mental capacity to enter a guilty plea. A legally incompetent defendant may not enter a plea of guilty. The court determines whether the defendant suffers from a mental disease or defect that renders him unable to understand the consequences of the proceedings or to assist properly in his defense.

The standard that the court uses to enter a guilty plea is whether the defendant has sufficient ability to talk with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding. It also checks to see whether the defendant has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. If the defendant fails this standard, he's legally incompetent and may not enter a guilty plea.

The court may conduct a hearing to determine whether the defendant is competent to plead guilty. He's entitled to a lawyer at this hearing and may present evidence to support his side.

Plea Is Knowingly and Intelligently Entered into

Before a plea of guilty will be accepted, the court must determine that the plea will be knowingly and intelligently entered into by the defendant. The court will address the defendant personally and explain various rights and information. It'll determine whether the defendant understands this information. Examples of rights and information explained to the defendant include:

  • The government's right to use against the defendant any statement he makes under oath
  • The right to plead not guilty
  • The right to a jury trial
  • The right to a lawyer
  • The right at trial to confront and cross-examine witnesses
  • The nature of each criminal charge
  • Any maximum penalty
  • Any mandatory minimum penalty

Plea Is Voluntarily

The court must address the defendant personally to determine if the plea is voluntary and doesn't result from force, threats or promises. A guilty plea that's induced in a way that makes it an involuntary act can't be accepted by the court. The court will examine all the factors surrounding the guilty plea in making this decision.

Factual Basis for Plea

The court must determine whether there's a factual basis for a guilty plea before accepting it. This means that the conduct admitted by the defendant constitutes the charged crime. The court can examine evidence such as a presentence report when making this decision. Usually a description by the defendant of the relevant facts of the case is the best way of eliciting a factual basis for a guilty plea.

Plea Agreement

The defendant can enter into a plea agreement with the government. A plea agreement is an agreement made in connection with the entry of a guilty plea. For example, the defendant may plead guilty to a charged crime in exchange for the government dismissing other charges. The agreement isn't binding until accepted by the court.

Withdrawal of Guilty Plea

The defendant usually may withdraw a guilty plea for any reason before the court accepts the plea. If the court has already accepted the guilty plea, the defendant may withdraw the plea only if he can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal. Some factors that the court will consider in deciding whether to grant the withdrawal include:

  • The credibility of the defendant's reason
  • The timing of the request
  • Whether the defendant claims he's innocent
  • The effect on any plea agreement

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have the mental capacity to enter a guilty plea even though I dropped out of school early and suffer from a learning disability?
  • Is it okay to enter a guilty plea even though I don't understand completely the criminal laws I am accused of breaking?
  • What are the benefits of entering into a plea agreement? If I sign an agreement, can I change my mind later and get out of it?

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