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Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea

The Nature Of Guilty Pleas

The main purpose of a guilty plea is to produce a final conclusion to a criminal case. Once a defendant enters a guilty plea, the prosecutor has no further obligation to introduce evidence of the defendant's guilt. A pleading defendant waives the right to raise most objections to police, prosecutorial, or judicial behavior that could have been raised on appeal after a trial and conviction. However, the defendant may still appeal issues relating to the guilty plea process, to events that occur after the guilty plea (e.g., improprieties in sentencing), to the essential invalidity of the court's "jurisdiction," and to a limited number of constitutional violations. The Supreme Court has had difficulty identifying dividing lines for which constitutional issues may be raised post-plea. Appellate courts also have upheld the ability of prosecutors to demand, as part of a plea bargain, a waiver of the right to appeal some issues relating to sentencing. In general, the courts have shown a strong preference for maintaining the finality of guilty pleas.

In other respects, guilty pleas have the same consequences as guilty verdicts. The judgments of conviction carry the identical evidentiary value and ramifications for future proceedings—including the same potential for sentence enhancement and for forfeiture of assets. In many jurisdictions, a guilty plea or guilty verdict fore-closes defendants from suing their lawyers for malpractice.

Some jurisdictions recognize pleas that are not guilty pleas in the traditional sense. The most common alternative is the nolo contendere, "Alford," or "non vult" plea. It enables defendants to accept the consequences of a guilty verdict without admitting that they committed the offense. A nolo plea has most of the consequences of a guilty plea; the potential sentence is identical and the judgment is considered a conviction. The plea is useful when both sides want to dispose of a case in order to reduce their risks, but the defendant simply cannot admit guilt.

The nolo plea differs from a guilty plea in two significant respects. It may not be used against a defendant in a civil case as an admission or as proof that defendant committed the underlying crime. And the defendant can publicly continue to deny guilt. Because of these differences, a defendant has no right to enter a nolo plea unless the prosecutor and court agree to accept it.

In some jurisdictions, guilty pleas may be entered conditionally, by agreement with the prosecutor or under some institutionalized program. Typically, these pleas are suspended while the defendant is given an opportunity to satisfy conditions of the plea agreement. If the defendant fulfills the requirements, the plea is vacated and the charges dropped; if the defendant fails, the guilty verdict becomes final. The most common conditional pleas involve pretrial diversion programs and traffic programs requiring participation in traffic school.

A different form of conditional plea, which few jurisdictions recognize, entitles defendants to admit committing a crime but to preserve appellate issues that might preclude a conviction. The logic of these pleas is that, when only legal issues have potential merit, it is wasteful to proceed with trial just to preserve the defendant's right to appeal. Moreover, if legal issues raise matters of public importance—such as police misconduct in Fourth Amendment cases—the appellate courts should be able to hear them. In most states, a defendant wishing to concede guilt but to retain the right to appeal would need to obtain the prosecutor's agreement to a jointly "stipulated trial," in which both sides agree upon all the facts in a bench trial. Prosecutors, who engage in plea bargaining to reduce the risk of acquittals and to avoid expending resources on appeals, rarely agree to stipulated trials.

A defendant's excuse for criminal conduct ordinarily is irrelevant to the defendant's plea. Excuses are raised as affirmative defenses at trial or left for sentencing. A few states, however, require defendants to identify particular affirmative defenses as part of the plea—requiring, for example, a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawGuilty Plea: Accepting the Plea - The Nature Of Guilty Pleas, The Plea Process, The Elements Of Guilty Pleas, Statutory And Procedural Requirements