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What does pleading guilty mean? Everything you need to know about pleas

What does pleading guilty mean? Everything you need to know about pleas

If you’ve been charged with a crime, you will need to make a series of critical decisions — choices that will forever alter your life and define your future.

The first and most important decision you will be faced with is how to plead in response to your charges. How do you know which choice is right for you? To answer that question, you first need to arm yourself with knowledge:

What is a plea?

When you are charged with a crime, you will be brought to court. A judge will read you the charges against you. Then, you will be asked to “enter a plea” of either guilty or not guilty.

In simplest terms: 

  • Pleading guilty means you are admitting to the charges against you.
  • Pleading not guilty means you are denying the charges against you.

However, there are several additional factors involved that make this decision more complex.

Pleading guilty

If you plead guilty, you are admitting the charges against you are true, and/or that you have no defense or excuse for the act.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” — this means that the government, through its prosecutor, carries the responsibility of proving that you violated the law. 

In other words, if you plead guilty, you are relieving the prosecutor of that burden and no longer requiring them to bring evidence against you and prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

For that reason, pleading guilty always results in a conviction — you waive your right to fight for the complete dismissal of the charges against you or for an acquittal (finding of not-guilty) in a trial. 

After you plead guilty, you will be sentenced. Depending on the crime, you may face fines, prison time, or both.

Why plead guilty?

If pleading guilty is a guaranteed conviction, why do it at all? The main reason to plead guilty is to take advantage of a plea bargain offered by the prosecutor. 

Prosecutors offer plea bargains because securing a fast conviction makes their job easier. It’s in their best interest to avoid the effort of going to trial — so in some cases, they’ll offer you an incentive to do so. Plea offers by prosecutors are almost always made out of perceived risks associated with going to trial. Accordingly, your lawyer’s trial skills and reputation are critical in negotiating the best plea bargain.

The consequences of a conviction

A plea bargain can also seem desirable for you, as it means resolving your case more quickly and getting the entire matter “over with.” We encourage all our clients not to think of a plea as “getting it over with,” but rather as ending one chapter of their lives as an “accused person” and starting a new chapter as a “convicted person.”

If you accept a plea bargain, you forfeit your right to a trial. That is why you should never accept one unless the evidence against you is irrefutable and it is highly unlikely you will succeed at trial.

A conviction is just the beginning of this new life chapter. After serving your time and paying your fines, the real consequences of having a criminal record begin, making it more difficult to: 

  • Secure employment
  • Provide for your family
  • Maintain your freedom

We believe every person deserves a future that isn’t defined by the mistakes of their past. That’s why we’ll never pressure you into accepting a plea deal. Instead, we will do everything in our power to fight for an acquittal — because a clean record is the only way to truly leave this mistake behind you.

Pleading not guilty

If you enter a plea of “not guilty,” you are denying the charges against you and putting the government to its burden of proof.

Guilt or innocence are legal terms, not moral ones. While you may “feel guilty,” our system requires the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, regardless of how you feel. Pleading "not guilty" is nothing more than saying that you will exercise your rights as an American to make the government fulfill its obligations under our Constitution, and to do so without your assistance.

It can mean that you didn’t do the crime, or that you have a reasonable excuse for doing so, or it can simply mean you don’t believe the government can produce enough evidence to convict you of any wrongdoing. Quite often, it is simply a statement that the government prosecutor has not made a plea offer sufficient to induce you to relieve them of their burden to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After pleading not guilty, you will go to trial, either before a jury or a judge (depending on the specifics of your case and the choices you make). At the trial, the prosecution carries the burden of proof, which means they must produce evidence that proves your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

At your trial, you have three options: you can represent yourself, ask for a public defender, or hire a private lawyer.

  • If you choose to represent yourself, you must know all the procedural rules and relevant laws; you won’t be cut any slack because you aren’t a lawyer. 
  • If you choose a public defender, you will not have to pay, but you will end up with an attorney who is currently handling about two and a half times the caseload recommended by the American Bar Association. You will also have to qualify financially for a public defender to be appointed.
  • If you choose to hire a private attorney, we believe you are putting yourself in the best position to have the charges dismissed or substantially reduced. That’s because a private lawyer can give you the time and devotion to leave no stone unturned in your case.

How do you decide which option is right for you?

Pleading “not guilty” is the only path that lets you fight for a full acquittal of the charges against you.

But of course, even if you plead not guilty, you can still be found guilty of some or all of your charges after the trial. That means you may be subject to full sentencing — and the previous plea bargains offered to you will no longer be available.

If it feels like a gamble, that’s because in some ways, it is. That’s why it’s important to hire a lawyer you trust, who has the experience to help you make the right decision based on all the unique facts of your case, the evidence against you, and what’s at stake if you lose.

There is no one right answer for everyone — every case is different. Your lawyer can help you make sense of all your options and choose the path that is best for you.

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