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Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - Statutory And Procedural Requirements

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Numerous protections against faulty pleas exist. Most important are the right to counsel and the requirement of judicial supervision of plea agreements. To avoid guilty pleas becoming subject to collateral attack, most jurisdictions have adopted prophylactic procedures governing the plea process. These typically require judges to provide defendants key information and to satisfy themselves that each plea is voluntary and intelligent. Failure to implement the statutes may open a plea to subsequent attack. However, because the statutory requirements often exceed constitutional requirements, reviewing courts may overlook technical flaws in the proceedings as harmless error.

Guilty plea proceedings consist of an inquiry into the voluntariness of the bargain and the factual basis for the conviction. The presiding judge must inquire into the nature of the bargain, including all inducements, and into the facts that the prosecution could prove to support the charges. The best procedures require courts to engage in a dialogue with defendants through which defendants themselves show their understanding of the charges, the elements of the crime, the nature of the bargain, and the range of possible consequences of pleading guilty. In the course of this inquiry, the court also must satisfy itself that defendant is competent and understands the extent and nature of the rights being waived.

Following these procedures insulates most guilty pleas from subsequent challenge. They help ensure that a court will not accept a plea when there are indications that defendant is incompetent, the plea is involuntary, or a factual basis for conviction is lacking. When defense counsel appears to suffer from a conflict of interest or appears ineffective, the court must inquire into those deficiencies as well. Thus, by the time a subsequent court is asked to review the plea, the record usually is clear that the plea was voluntary, intelligent, and—though regretted by the defendant—a product of fair bargaining.

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