One of the first decisions a person who has been accused of a crime will face is whether to plead guilty. When that person believes that they are guilty, the decision becomes even more difficult. The criminal justice system is centered on the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — in other words that they can only be found guilty if the prosecution proves it. This may conflict with a feeling of moral duty to take responsibility for one’s actions or a desire to move beyond the incident as quickly as possible. Also, the timing of a guilty plea can definitely impact an accused’s rights and the consequences that they may face.
Entering a Plea at Arraignment
In Florida, a person accused of a crime makes a first appearance to determine whether they will be let out on bail. An arraignment hearing, where the accused will enter a plea, is held within 30 days after that first appearance. The accused may enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest at this time.
The plea entered should depend on the severity of the charge. In severe cases, neither the defense attorney nor State Attorney will have had time to thoroughly review the case. Because of this, the State Attorney will not likely make an offer which is favorable to the defendant, and the defense attorney will be in a bad position to advise the defendant whether they should take the offer. A not guilty plea at this point will preserve a defendant’s rights and give their attorney time to review the case.
In misdemeanors, a guilty plea may be recommended. Many times, the State Attorney will have a policy to offer a favorable deal that could include the reduction of a felony to a misdemeanor or even a misdemeanor to a civil sanction. Other incentives offered may include avoiding jail time or the dismissal of charges based on certain conditions being met. The defense attorney will be able to quickly review the facts with their client and use their experience handling similar cases to advise their client whether a guilty plea is recommended.
Changing a Plea
When a defendant pleads guilty at arraignment, they are locked into that plea. However there are certain legal exceptions which may allow them to withdraw the plea. A not guilty plea, however, can be withdrawn at virtually any time and later changed to a plea of guilty or no contest to the crime charged or a lesser charge. Generally, a change in plea will happen only after a defense attorney has negotiated a favorable deal for their client. This is why defendants are often advised to initially plead not guilty regardless of guilt.
The bigger question becomes if and when to withdraw a plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty. The two key determining factors are the strength of the State’s case and any deal that may be offered by the State. If the State does not have strong evidence connecting the defendant to the crime, the defendant may decide that it is worth taking the case to trial to possibly avoid a criminal conviction. If the State is offering little or no incentive for entering a guilty plea, the defendant does not have much to gain by waiving a trial that at worst will result in virtually the same result. The final decision on whether to maintain a plea of not guilty is a balancing test of these two factors made by the defendant in consultation with their defense attorney. Contact James Davis today to schedule an appointment for premium legal advice.