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Should You Plead Guilty or Not Guilty?

September 6, 2019

When you have been charged with a crime, the first step in the criminal justice process will be an arraignment hearing where you will enter a plea. Traditionally, there are two options available: Guilty or not guilty. While it may seem like a simple decision between the two, there are actually many factors to consider before entering your plea. In other words, your plea will not necessarily be determined by whether you are innocent

Before entering your plea, you should review your case with your criminal defense attorney, as every case will have unique circumstances. However, if you are unable to consult a lawyer prior to arraignment or you are uncertain what a guilty plea will entail, it is typically advisable to enter a plea of “not guilty”. That’s because you can change a not guilty plea to a guilty one at any time, but a guilty plea is usually permanent. 

What Pleading Guilty Means

When a lawyer advises a client to plead guilty, it is usually because a deal has been worked out with the prosecution to reduce the sentence associated with the crime or drop certain charges. For example, a felony charge may be reduced to a misdemeanor through a plea deal. If there is substantial evidence against you in your case and it is likely that a jury would find you guilty, a plea deal will typically be the best path. However, there are some drawbacks to pleading guilty. First, you cannot maintain your innocence with a guilty plea. When you enter your plea, you will have to admit to the crimes you have been accused of, and you will have the charges on your record for life. 

Additionally, the sentencing decision for your case will still ultimately be left up to the judge. That means that if the judge does not agree with the terms of the plea deal presented by the prosecution, he or she can add additional jail time, fines, and other punitive measures to your sentence. What’s more is that there are often minimum sentences for specific crimes, so you may still need to serve jail time even if you have worked out a deal with the prosecution. 

What Pleading Not Guilty Means

A plea of not guilty generally implies that your case will go to trial. However, there may be further negotiation toward a plea deal or out of court litigation that prevents the trial from occurring. Because trials are more expensive and time-consuming than a plea negotiated outside the courtroom, it is often favorable for prosecutors to strike a deal to reduce the sentence or the charges brought against the defendant. But, if you are innocent, then a not guilty plea is also the most logical choice for your case. It will allow you to argue your innocence in front of a jury of your peers. If you receive a not guilty verdict following your trial, no charges will remain on your record, and you will be free to go. 

Unfortunately, juries can be unpredictable. So, taking your case to trial presents the risk that you will be found guilty of all charges. In this situation, you may face the maximum penalty for those charges. Another potential drawback of going to trial is that it is a lengthy process and it may draw attention from the media, depending on the charges you’re accused of. However, you will also have more time to prepare your case before your trial, and typically you will be allowed to remain at home with your family until your trial takes place. 

Alternative Options 

Rarely, there are cases where neither plea will be submitted. Instead, you will plead “no contest”, which is not an admission of guilt, but it does not argue the charges raised against you. It is necessary to have a no contest plea approved by the prosecution, and these types of pleas account for a very small percentage of criminal cases.  

Making the Decision 

Ultimately, the right plea decision will be dependent on the unique circumstances of your case. Working with a criminal defense attorney that you can trust will ensure that you make the right decision for your needs. 

If you have been charged with any crime in Tucson, AZ, don’t leave your future up to chance. Get the experienced, professional defense you need from Janet Altschuler. Ms. Altschuler’s practice is solely focused on criminal cases, and she has more than 2 decades of experience navigating the criminal justice system in Pima County. When you need a lawyer, give our office a call at (520) 829-4460.