During the crimal justice process, a very important step is the plea. In layman’s term, a plea is when the criminal defendant admits to the charges leveled against him in order to avoid trial. A defendant usually could plead guilty up to the initiation of the trial. In the hands of a trained criminal defense attorney, the plea is a power tool, usually used to bargain for lenient sentences or punishments. In fact, the plea bargaining is one of the devices the court systems uses, both at the state and the federal level, to reduce case-load and speed up the criminal justice process. In fact only about 8 to 10% of all criminal cases actually make it to trial.
Just because the court encourages plea bargaining does not mean one should take pleading guilty lightly. Once the criminal defendant pleads guilty, it cannot be undone or appealed in most jurisdictions. In addition, because pleading guilty is admitting guilt, the charges will stay on the defendant’s record. This means that even though you might receive a lesser sentence, probation or fines, you are deemed guilty of the charges against you. This record will make it harder for you to get to job, apply to college and apply for loans. Thus you should consult your attorney and discuss if pleading guilty will help you or hurt your case. Then and only then should you make the decision to plead, and once you do, there’s no going back.
The criminal justice system is set up to protect everyone from oppressive or unfair treatment. That is why the state and the prosecutor have to prove every element of your charges beyond a reasonable doubt. If even one of the necessary elements of the criminal charge is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, you are not legally guilty. Your criminal defense attorney is there to make sure your constitutional rights are protected. It’s the criminal defense attorney’s job to make sure that you are not subject to illegal searches or seizures, that evidence brought against you is reliable and credible and that the state meets its lofty burden of proof. If the state fails to meet its burden of proof, you are not guilty of committing the crime in the eyes of the law.
Perhaps it’s easier to see why pleading guilty could hurt your case by raising some hypothetical scenarios. Let’s say that you were engaged in bar fight, in the process the fight, you seriously injure someone. You were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery. You might feel guilty over what you did but you have a legal claim for proper self-defense if you legitimately feared for you own life and/or a reasonable person would have feared for his/her life in your situation. You could always plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge of simple assault and battery but you could fight the case in court and be completely exonerated of the charges. Take another example, if you are charged with driving with a blood alcohol level above .08 then the state has to prove, among other things, that your blood alcohol level was above .08 when you were driving. Maybe you had a drink before you started driving, and maybe you feel guilty for that. But what if your blood alcohol level was .05 or .04? What if the policy administered your BAC test without following proper protocol? What if the BAC machine was faulty? You may swear never to have another drink before driving because your moral guilt is so strong. But you may not have to suffer the dramatic and damaging effects of a DUI conviction if you can avoid being found legally guilty.
Thus as you can see, whether to plead guilty to the charges leveled against you is an important and life altering questions that should not taken lightly. If you are thinking about pleading, it is in your best interest to talk to a criminal defense lawyer before you do because once the plea is entered, you cannot take it back and in the end, it could change your life dramatically if you made the wrong decision.