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Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - The Elements Of Guilty Pleas

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Valid guilty pleas have three basic elements. The court accepting the plea must have jurisdiction. The defendant must be competent to make the decision to plead guilty. Due process requires that the decision be voluntary and reasonably well-informed.

Competence and voluntariness are linked. Because plea agreements are conceptualized as rational bargains, it is important for courts to satisfy themselves that defendants have exercised free will. A mentally incompetent defendant or one under the influence of drugs or alcohol is legally unable to enter a voluntary plea. The standards for mental incompetence are similar to the standards for competence to stand trial; namely, whether the defendant can understand the proceedings and has "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."

The concept of voluntariness extends further. It is easier to list factors that may make pleas involuntary than to identify a general standard for voluntary pleas. When a defendant enters a plea because of terror, threats, or improper inducements, the plea is not voluntary. On the other hand, a defendant's fear of the real consequences of not pleading guilty or the defendant's desire to receive concessions will not vitiate a plea. Otherwise, most pleas would be invalid. The dividing line is elusive.

Equally complicated is the question of how well defendants must understand the consequences of pleading. At a minimum, defendants must be made aware of the main constitutional rights being relinquished. These include the privilege against self-incrimination, right to trial by jury, and right to confront one's accusers. Defendants also must understand the nature of the charges against them and the maximum possible sentence. But when a defendant turns out to have been confused or to have received bad advice regarding such matters as the likelihood of winning at trial or of receiving leniency, courts have not been generous in deeming pleas involuntary. The opinions weigh the need to provide due process against the system's need for finality in guilty plea judgments.

Extraneous factors may require rejection of superficially valid pleas. One example is prosecutorial misconduct. The courts have rejected guilty pleas induced by threats, misrepresentations, overcharging, and broken promises by prosecutors. However, plea negotiations often involve posturing and puffing by the lawyers on both sides. The degree of compulsion created by such prosecutorial conduct is key to the decision of whether the conduct rendered a plea involuntary or violated due process.

The presence of competent defense counsel is relevant to an assessment of both voluntariness and defendant's separate constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. When a defendant proceeds pro se or when the defendant's lawyer represents the defendant poorly (or is constrained by a conflict of interest), prosecutorial misconduct is more likely to force a plea and render a defendant's decision uninformed. As a result, courts hesitate to accept a guilty plea unless competent counsel is present. At a minimum, a court must assure itself that a defendant understands the right to counsel before accepting a waiver of counsel in connection with a plea. Conversely, the presence of active counsel may mitigate a court's sense that threats or fear prevented a defendant from making a voluntary, rational choice.

Judicial misconduct also can undermine plea agreements. Judges have statutory obligations in accepting pleas. Failure to fulfill these obligations does not automatically justify withdrawal of a plea. On the other hand, a judge's overinvolvement in plea negotiations may coerce defendants into accepting bargains, fearing retaliation for failure to do so. Some jurisdictions forbid any judicial involvement in negotiations. Even where no clear rule exists, judicial interference increases the possibility that a plea will later be deemed involuntary.

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