Attorney, Dennis Nave, from our Syracuse office, takes a look at six reasons why you may or may not want to plead guilty in a criminal case.
If you are put in the unfortunate position of defending yourself in a criminal case, you should know that you have two basic options: (1) proceed to trial and question the government’s evidence OR (2) have your attorney attempt to negotiate a favorable plea bargain. In each scenario, you should always be fully advised of the pros and cons of proceeding down each path and it is your attorney’s responsibility to ensure that you are comfortable with the decision you are making.
While entire books have been written on trials and lawyers base their entire careers around them, not much is written in the way of how to advise clients on how to plead guilty or what pleading guilty even means.
When I explain to a client his or her options and I cover what it might mean to plead guilty to a particular offense, I always lead with the fact that he or she does not have to plead guilty. You can never be required to plead guilty to a crime. However, a plea bargain may have the possibility of reducing the number of convictions at the end of the case and/or lessening the possible punishments that could be imposed. With trial we are exposed to the full weight of the charges and their punishments. This is why plea bargains are sometimes the way to resolve a case and why attorneys often recommend this course of action.
Simply put, a guilty plea is your acknowledgment to the court that you are no longer interested in putting on a defense to the evidence against you and that you are prepared to accept responsibility for whatever offense may be part of the plea bargain. You will be asked to admit that you committed some offense on some date, and you may even be asked to recite details about what happened.
While you can never be required to plead guilty to anything, you are always free to speak at trial in your own defense. Again, you do not have to do so because it is the government’s job to prove your guilt of a particular offense beyond a reasonable doubt–the highest burden of proof our law knows. It is more than what it is required for the government to take your children away. All of this would take place at a trial, either by jury (whose verdict would have to be unanimous) or judge, and your attorney would be responsible for questioning the evidence against you. You and your attorney could then put forth some sort of defense. Prior to trial, your attorney might have the option of filing motions based on your statutory and constitutional rights having been violated should that be applicable in your case. This could serve as the basis for suppressing evidence and/or statements that could be used against you. All of this is important to understand, or at least recognize, because you would be giving up your absolute rights to trial and silence in order to enter a guilty plea.
Noting the above, there may be several reasons you should not plead guilty. Here are six important considerations before you decide to enter a guilty plea:
(1) There may be inadvertent and unintended consequences with your plea.
This particular list could be endless, but it starts with the fact that you may be pleading guilty to a crime. A criminal record can have unforeseen consequences later in life and it could have negative effects on current and future employment prospects. You’ll likely be required to report it when applying for schools or jobs, and they may turn you away simply because of what happened in the past. In New York, there is currently no mechanism for expunging (or erasing) a criminal record. There are ways of reducing the effect a prior record has on your life, but the record will always exist. If you are not a citizen of the US, a guilty plea may have drastic implications on your immigration status. There could be fines, surcharges, fees, etc. as a result of a conviction. Insurance premiums may go up, or your policy could be dropped. If you’re looking at a felony conviction, you may be losing the rights to vote, carry a gun, hold public office, obtain certain jobs, hold certain licenses, etc.. You could be facing additional and stronger punishments should you be arrested in the future for similar offenses.
The point is that while we may not be able to know everything that could happen as the result of a guilty plea, the conversation about likely consequences stemming from such a result must be discussed prior to entering such a deal.
(2) You’re actually innocent.
The plea bargain system is a double-edged sword. It can really help those that get good deals, but it can really hurt people who do not get a good deal or those who may be scared into taking a plea when they’re actually innocent. For instance, someone may get an offer to completely avoid the original offense they were charged by pleading guilty to a different, lesser offense or by agreeing to something like community service. On the other hand, someone may be so scared at the thought of what a judge could do after trial that he or she decides to accept a plea deal to avoid that uncertainty.
While the nature of a charge does not mean that you are guilty, the fact that you have been charged with a crime means that you and your attorney have to fight it somehow. You and your attorney should always be assessing whether a plea bargain is truly in your best interests. If the exposure to a criminal conviction and the worst punishments are on the table after a trial, and those are your biggest concerns, perhaps a plea bargain is the right course of action. If you feel that you are innocent of the charged conduct, then you should make this clear to your attorney and the likely advice will be to litigate your case to a verdict in front of a jury.
(3) It is not your job to plead guilty; it is the government’s job to prove the case against you.
You and your attorney should look critically into the evidence and/or statements the government intends to use against you in any particular case. If the government does not have enough evidence to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, then a plea bargain that results in a conviction of some kind may not be the right course of action for you. Remember, you can never be required to plead guilty to an offense.
(4) If the government violated your rights, it should be held accountable for its actions.
A guilty plea may mean that the government is never held accountable for law enforcement or the prosecutor doing something illegal or in violation of your statutory and/or constitutional rights. Law enforcement may have entered your home without justification or a warrant. They may have searched you or stopped you without having enough information or reason prior to doing so. They may have taken a confession from you without having advised you of your rights to an attorney and to remain silent. The prosecutor may not have turned over evidence that is favorable to you during the discovery phase of the case. All of these concepts, and more, should be investigated before a guilty plea is entered because a decision by the judge in your favor on any of these points could mean the government’s case gets weaker or goes away.
(5) The so-called “offer” may be no offer at all and you have nothing to lose by going to trial.
In many instances, the prosecutor makes poor offers and the consequences of that offer are either close to or are identical to what could happen at trial. If that’s the case, and there is no better offer forthcoming, then a discussion should be had with your attorney about going to trial. You may truly have nothing to lose by using your statutory and constitutional rights and fighting the charges against you. After all, it is why our country’s adversarial justice system was created.
(6) You may be giving up the right to an appeal.
An appeal is essentially a complaint to a higher court about whether the conviction and/or sentence in your case should have ever occurred. Some prosecutors and judges require that a defendant give up his or her right to an appeal of the conviction and sentence in a case following a plea bargain. This is done so that they don’t have to deal with your case again in the future. Your attorney may have advised you of strategic reasons for entering a guilty plea, but you should discuss in detail the possible waiver of your right to appeal before moving forward.
At the end of the day, the decision to plead guilty is a difficult one and it should be fully addressed with your attorney. Your attorney should learn what your goals are and he or she should advise you based on what those goals are and how you want to see your case resolved. Above all, ask questions and know your rights.
The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem.
DISCLAIMER: The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem. Statewide Defense with Corporate offices Central located for The DWI GUYS at 432 N. Franklin Street, Syracuse, NY 13204; Telephone No.: 1-800-394-8326. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.