Should I Plead Guilty?

Pleading guilty is a big deal, yet most criminal cases are resolved this way. Sometimes even people who maintain their innocence want to plead guilty.

Updated April 18, 2022

The decision whether to plead guilty should be made only after careful consideration, and with the advice of an attorney. But let's back up—why would anyone want to admit they're guilty when they have a right to a trial at which the prosecutor has to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? The answer is that a guilty plea—or its cousin, the no contest (or "nolo contendere") plea—is usually the result of a plea deal. Below is a run-down on how it all works and whether it's a good idea.

What Does it Mean to Plead Guilty?

Just like its name suggests, a "guilty plea" is an admission of guilt. A defendant in a criminal case is normally allowed to choose not to go to trial and to plead guilty instead, so long as the plea is "voluntary, knowing, and intelligent." In other words, the defendant must understand the nature of the charges and the consequences of pleading guilty, and can't be coerced into pleading (though fear of going to trial and receiving a long sentence isn't considered coercion). Because a defendant has to understand the charges and consequences of a guilty plea, they're entitled to (and should take advantage of) the assistance of competent counsel before and during the plea.

What is a plea deal?

Plea deals (or plea bargains) are an essential part of the U.S. criminal legal system. In most state criminal cases, the defense and the prosecution decide not to go to trial and, instead, to compromise with a plea agreement.

Under the plea agreement, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a crime in exchange for a benefit. The benefit might include the prosecution dropping some of the charges, reducing the crime charged to a lesser crime (robbery to theft, for example), and/or agreeing to a certain sentence.

The prosecutor benefits from a plea deal as well. They get to avoid the cost and time of a trial, and they get a guaranteed conviction.

What Happens After You Plead Guilty?

After a guilty plea, there is no trial. The judge will convict the defendant of the crime, and either sentence them immediately or set a date for sentencing. The sentence the judge will impose will often be a "negotiated sentence"—the sentence both sides agreed to under the plea bargain.

Can You Plead Guilty and Not Be Convicted?

No, as noted above, a guilty plea results in a conviction. After the plea, the judge will formally find the defendant guilty and enter a conviction into the record. The person will remain convicted of the offense, even though they didn't have a trial. (In some types of cases, convictions can be "expunged," or erased.)

Why Should (or Shouldn't) You Plead Guilty?

The decision whether to plead guilty depends on many factors and the specifics of your case. In general, some of the possible benefits of a plea bargain can include one or more of the following:

  • a reduced sentence
  • pleading to a less serious offense
  • avoiding the stress and embarrassment of a public trial, and
  • getting the case over with quickly.

That said, there are often reasons why a defendant would choose not to plead guilty. Being innocent is a big one (more on that below). Also, the prosecutor might want the defendant to plead to a far more serious crime than the defendant committed. Or, the prosecution's case might be really weak, and the defendant could have a decent shot at being acquitted. For these reasons, it's important to consult closely with an attorney before deciding whether to plead guilty.

Can You Plead Guilty to a Crime You Didn't Commit?

Sometimes, when someone's charged with a crime they didn't commit, a plea deal might seem like the best option, even though the person is innocent. Maybe the prosecution has enough evidence that leads the defendant (and their attorney) to worry that a trial could easily result in a guilty verdict, despite their innocence. Perhaps the prosecution has a believable witness who is mistaken and will identify them as the offender. Can they plead guilty even though they'd be lying if they said they committed the crime?

The answer is no (not legally,) if they're under oath. Often, when someone pleads guilty, they have to state, under oath, that what they did was a crime—for example, that they assaulted or shot someone, stole money from their employer, or drove drunk. The law doesn't allow a defendant to lie about their guilt to get a plea deal. But there are often other ways to get a deal, including a "no contest" plea and less commonly, an "Alford plea" (see below).

No Contest Pleas

A "no contest" (or nolo contendere) plea is different from a guilty plea but it has the same effect. When someone pleads "no contest" they don't admit guilt, but they acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove the crime, and they agree not to contest the charges. Just like with a guilty plea, after a no contest plea, the judge finds the person guilty and sentences them.

But unlike a guilty plea, a no contest plea by an innocent person doesn't involve any dishonesty because the person doesn't admit guilt—they just don't contest the charges.

Usually, the prosecution must agree to a no contest plea and the judge must allow it. As with a guilty plea, the defendant must have access to an attorney's advice before entering the plea. The rules, benefits and downsides of no contest pleas can vary from state to state.

Alford Pleas

Another option sometimes available to a defendant who can't admit guilt is an "Alford plea" (named after the case of North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970)). With an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty but asserts their innocence at the same time and acknowledges that the prosecution likely can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Like a no contest or guilty plea, an Alford plea results in a conviction.

An Alford plea isn't as common as a no contest plea, and it's not allowed in states like Indiana, New Jersey, and Michigan. Some other states significantly limit its use. Like a no contest plea, an Alford plea is normally only allowed if the prosecutor agrees, the judge says it's okay, and the defendant has access to competent legal advice before the plea.

Negotiating a No Contest or Alford Plea

Because the prosecutor must agree to an Alford or no contest plea, the defense must first make sure that the prosecutor will agree to the alternative plea.

In felony cases, the parties often sign a written plea agreement before going to court. The fact that the defendant won't be pleading guilty—but will instead be pleading no contest or entering an Alford plea—should be included in the written agreement. If it's not in the agreement and, the defense announces in court that they want to enter something other than a guilty plea, the prosecutor doesn't have to agree and the plea deal could fall apart.

In some cases, it's important to the judge, the victim, or the prosecutor that the defendant admits the crime. Ultimately, if the prosecutor or judge isn't on board with the defendant pleading to a crime without admitting guilt, they won't be allowed to enter an alternative plea.

Can You Withdraw Your Guilty Plea If You Change Your Mind?

In some circumstances, especially before sentencing, a defendant might be able to take back a guilty or no contest plea.

But after sentencing, unless there are unusual circumstances, the plea normally can't be undone. There are some narrow exceptions, such as a plea that wasn't voluntary, knowing, and intelligent, but courts don't often find that a plea fits within that category. And even in the uncommon cases where defendants are allowed to withdraw their plea, they're not necessarily entitled to another plea offer, and may end up having to go to trial on all the charges.

Also, someone who pleads guilty or no contest usually gives up their right to appeal the conviction. But in some states, there might be limited exceptions that allow an appeal from the denial of a suppression motion or from a sentence that wasn't part of a plea bargain.

So, a defendant should assume that when they plead guilty, it's permanent, because there's no guarantee that they can take it back.

Talk to an Attorney

If you're charged with a crime, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney immediately. A local experienced attorney, who will likely know many of the prosecutors and judges in the court your case is in, should be in a good position to negotiate a possible plea agreement, or can represent you at trial should you decide to fight the case.

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