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Guilty Plea: Accepting the Plea

The Plea Process

Early in any prosecution, a defendant is brought before a judicial officer for arraignment. There, the judge advises the defendant of the charges, appoints counsel if necessary, and requires the defendant to enter a guilty or not guilty plea. In serious matters, the judge ordinarily will not accept a guilty plea at the arraignment unless satisfied that the defendant has been advised by counsel to enter the plea.

A defendant may change a not guilty plea to guilty at any time. Guilty pleas usually occur before trial, because prosecutors will offer concessions to avoid the risky and resource-intensive trial process. Occasionally, however, pleas occur after both parties have reassessed their chances of success in light of trial developments.

There is some question about the disclosure obligation of prosecutors before a plea is entered. Defendants need not accept a bargain until discovery is complete. But prosecutors may not be willing to offer as good a bargain late in the process. There is a strong argument that disclosure of at least constitutionally mandated discovery—including exculpatory material—should be required if defendants are to make rational judgments about the risks they face.

Once a guilty plea has been entered, the defendant is sentenced just like someone convicted after trial. However, the plea agreement may include sentencing concessions by the prosecutor, such as a promise to propose a particular sentence or not to take any position at sentencing. Some plea agreements specify a sentence to be imposed. Because sentencing is the court's prerogative, the presiding judge has the option of agreeing to impose this sentence or rejecting the plea agreement.

After sentencing, pleading defendants have the same time to appeal as convicted defendants. The issues that they may raise on appeal are limited. Additional procedures exist for attacking pleas collaterally. But because of the system's interest in finality and the reality that many defendants regret their decisions to plead guilty once incarcerated, courts restrict the grounds for undoing pleas.

Additional topics

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