Should I Admit Guilt to My Criminal Defense Attorney?

It's up to the judge or jury to determine guilt. Your lawyer's job is to fight for you.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated By Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated November 07, 2023

Many people facing criminal charges worry that, if they admit guilt or involvement to their attorney, their attorney will abandon them, sabotage their defense, or not work as hard for an acquittal. However, private criminal defense attorneys and public defenders are deeply committed to ensuring that they get the best possible outcomes for their clients. The focus of a criminal trial is whether the prosecutor can prove that you committed the charged crime. Your defense attorney's job is to fight for you, protect your constitutional rights, and poke holes in the prosecutor's case—no matter what your attorney's personal view of the facts may be.

So, if you did commit a crime, should you admit it to your attorney?

Criminal defense attorneys have an ethical obligation to zealously represent all clients and maintain attorney-client privilege. You can admit guilt to your attorney and know that your attorney will still fight for you and won't repeat what you say to anyone without your permission. Your attorney's job is to be your advocate and make sure that you get a fair trial, not decide if you're innocent or guilty. That's for the jury or judge. But if you decide to confess to your attorney, know that your attorney can't then allow you to testify at trial knowing you plan to deny committing the crime. Attorneys can't knowingly allow anyone, including clients, to offer false testimony in court.

Talking to Your Attorney About the Case

Different attorneys have different opinions on what they want their clients to tell them about the case. Many criminal defense attorneys want their clients to tell them everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—because attorneys can't defend against what they don't know. And defendants don't always know when they have a defense. You might, for example, be tempted to deny being involved in a fight altogether without realizing that you have a powerful self-defense claim.

But some attorneys don't want to talk to their clients about the facts of the case because they don't want to be limited in pursuing a defense. These attorneys will tell you that they don't want to know everything—they want to know only what the prosecution knows.

Some attorneys say that they just assume that all their clients are guilty because it helps them critically evaluate the case and decide how to present the best defense. If they allow themselves to believe that their client is innocent, they might miss out on a more effective or compelling argument. No matter what, with exceedingly rare exceptions, attorneys are required to maintain lawyer-client confidentiality.

You may change your mind about how much to share with your lawyer as your case progresses. After you've had time to review the prosecution's evidence against you (called "discovery") you might decide that the best path forward is to tell your attorney everything and plea bargain for a more lenient sentence or become a cooperating witness.

No matter which approach you and your lawyer take, don't make your lawyer's job harder by lying about what happened. If you make up a false alibi, for example, your lawyer will spend time and resources chasing down a defense that won't help you in the end. It's better to say nothing than to make stuff up.

Can My Attorney Still Defend Me If I Tell Them I'm Guilty?

The American justice system requires that the prosecutor prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a high standard, but our legal system is founded on the principle that it is better to let a guilty person go free than to wrongly convict an innocent person.

Criminal defense attorneys are ethically required to zealously represent their clients, no matter what their personal opinion of the case may be. This means that criminal defense attorneys are required to do their best to advocate for their clients, even if the attorney believes the client is guilty.

Attorneys cannot, however, present evidence or arguments that they know to be false. (American Bar Association, ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rules 3.1, 3.3.) Does this mean that if a client admits guilt to his or her attorney, the attorney cannot enter a not-guilty plea or zealously represent the client? No. In such cases, the attorney can focus on the holes in the prosecutor's evidence or on other legal issues (such as whether a search was lawful under the Fourth Amendment, or whether scientific tests were performed according to the appropriate standards) that do not relate to whether the client committed the crime or not.

For example, suppose you're accused of cocaine possession. The cocaine was found in the console of your friend's car. You admit to your attorney that the cocaine was yours. Your attorney can argue that the prosecutor hasn't proven that you possessed the cocaine beyond a reasonable doubt by pointing out that multiple people had access to the console and no fingerprints connect you to it. But, the attorney can't put you on the stand to deny that it was yours or falsely claim that it was someone else's. If you insist on going down that path, your attorney will have to ask to withdraw from the case.

Talk to a Lawyer

Whether you believe you're guilty or not, you're entitled to a fair trial and an attorney who will represent your interests. If you're charged with or accused of committing a crime, talk to a lawyer. Your lawyer is there to fight for you. You and your attorney can decide how much information to share about the facts underlying the case.

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