4 Types of Criminal Pleas: What is the Difference?

4 Types of Criminal Pleas: What is the Difference?

Whenever you make the decision to plead on a case, there are more options than just “guilty” or “innocent.” You can also blind plea, plead no contest, and enter an Alford plea. Each type of plea is different, and may be a better fit for you and your case.

The Blind Plea

A blind plea occurs when you choose to enter a guilty plea without accepting the recommendation from the State. For example, if the prosecutor is offering a plea deal of 1 year of probation and you believe you can get a better deal from the judge, you can enter a blind plea. When entering a blind plea, you plead guilty to the judge without a set deal from the State. This means the judge can sentence you to any punishment up to the statutory maximum for that crime.

Passing Sentencing for Blind Plea Deals: The Judge

Once you have entered a blind plea, the judge may not immediately sentence you. Sometimes the judge will accept your plea and pass the sentencing. This means the plea of guilty has been entered, but you will come back on a separate day to receive your punishment. This can happen for a number of reasons. Most commonly, sentencing is delayed because it involves jail time. When facing jail time, people often need a few days or weeks to settle affairs at home and make sure everything is in order.

Passing Sentencing for Blind Plea Deals: The State

Sometimes the State passes sentencing. This typically happens when the case involves a victim, because victims have a statutory right to provide an impact statement at sentencing. A victim impact statement may be written and attached to the district attorney’s report, which is submitted to the judge before sentencing. Or the statement can be read aloud during court by the victim or a representative for the victim (such as a lawyer, family member, or an employee from the district attorney’s office) so the judge can consider it.

Another reason the State may pass sentencing is for a sentencing brief. On a blind plea, both sides have the right to a sentencing brief. This is simply a written document that includes the facts of the case, a request for a particular sentence, and an argument about why that sentence would be appropriate in this case. If one side chooses to write a sentencing brief, the other side will typically write a response, which can lead to a substantial amount of time between the plea and the actual sentencing.

Is a Blind Plea Deal Worth It?

Entering a blind plea can be risky. By entering a blind plea, you plead guilty without any idea of what the punishment may be. Typically, judges will be more lenient than if you were found guilty at trial. However, the judge can sentence you within the full range of punishment. The judge is not required to match the offer the district attorney gave you, and the district attorney may change their recommendation when you decide not to take their deal. Nonetheless, if you believe the deal the State is offering you is unfair but you still want to plead guilty, a blind plea is the best option.

The No Contest Plea

A no contest plea is similar to a guilty plea, with a few minor distinctions. When you choose to enter a plea of no contest, you are accepting the offer from the State in its entirety. The terms of your plea (e.g. jail time) do not change whether you choose to plead guilty or no contest.

Additionally, a no contest plea does not affect enhancement of predicate offenses. In other words, because this type of plea results in a conviction, it can act as a predicate. A predicate offense is an offense for which the punishment becomes more severe if you already have a conviction on your record for that same offense. Some examples of predicate offenses are: Driving under the Influence, Larceny of Merchandise from a Retailer, and Domestic Assault and Battery.

What's the Difference Between a Blind Plea and a No Contest Plea?

By pleading no contest, you enter a plea and accept the State’s offer, but do not admit to being guilty of the crime alleged. You are acknowledging that the State has enough evidence to prove you guilty at trial, but you are not agreeing that you are guilty. While it makes it easier to enter a plea to a crime you feel you were justified in committing, it doesnt change the outcome of the plea at all. It is legally the exact same as entering a plea of guilty for the purposes of a conviction.

While a no contest plea doesn’t change the requirements on probation, the State is not required to give you the same plea deal with a no contest plea as it does with a guilty plea. For example, the State will regularly not let you plead no contest on a domestic assault with probation; they will only allow no contest pleas on domestic assaults with jail time.

This may seem like they are merely trying to punish you for entering a no contest plea, but the State often has a good reason for treating no content pleas differently. By statute, everyone who pleads to domestic assault and battery MUST participate in the Batterers Intervention Program. The very first step in this program is admitting that you did in fact commit the domestic assault and battery. The State will not allow you to plead no contest and enter this program, knowing you will not admit that you committed this crime. For those reasons, the punishment would change with a no contest plea. However, you would know of this change before entering the plea, and can discuss with your attorney whether it is the right decision for you.

The Alford Plea

An Alford plea is very unusual, and very rarely seen in criminal law today. An Alford plea is when you enter a plea to the State’s recommendation as if you are guilty, but maintain your innocence. Unlike with a no contest plea, you are not merely acknowledging that the State can prove you guilty; you are asserting that you are entirely innocent. For example, University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon entered an Alford plea on misdemeanor assault charges in 2014.

Many prosecutors will not allow you to enter an Alford plea to the recommendation they offer. This is because there is a difference of opinion regarding whether or not an Alford plea on a predicate offense will attach a conviction for the purposes of enhancement. While the law does permit an Alford plea to be used to enhance the next case, some prosecutors feel that is improper since it is not an acknowledgement of guilt.

Other prosecutors will forbid Alford pleas for policy reasons. Their job is intended to serve justice, and allowing an innocent person to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit isn’t justice.

The Guilty Plea

This is the most common type of plea in a criminal case. While your requirements on probation or your length of jail time will not differ regardless of what plea you choose to enter, this is the only type of plea that will guarantee you the plea deal offered by the State.

Remember, the prosecution bears the burden of proving that the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt in a criminal case. If you and your attorney feel a conviction is likely based on the evidence in your case, pleading guilty may help you enter into a favorable plea negotiations. For example, the district attorney may drop the charges to a less serious offense or agree to reduce your sentence because you are accepting guilt. This can be beneficial, especially if you face a jail or prison sentence.

Do You Need a Lawyer To Plead Guilty?

Per U.S. law, defendants always have the right to represent themselves in court. That being said, a lawyer’s experience and advice is invaluable and can make a big difference in the outcome of your case.

The law the court must apply can be very complex even in “simple” criminal cases. And if you represent yourself, you will be held to the established standards of law—in short, you must know how to navigate the legal proceedings as well as any lawyer.

Hiring an attorney will ensure your rights are protected and the necessary documents, motions, evidence, and witnesses you need to defend yourself are presented to the judge or jury. In general, a lawyer will have the expertise to mount your best defense strategy, including plea deals and even types of trials.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, you are entitled to a court-appointed lawyer at the State’s expense.

The Bottom Line

If you like the offer from the prosecutor, but don't feel comfortable entering a guilty plea, you do have options to enter a plea without admitting guilt. Conversely, if you are wanting to enter a plea, but don't like the plea offer from the prosecutor, you can enter a blind plea and be sentenced by the judge. Every case comes with its own set of complexities and consequences, so be sure to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before you make any plea decisions.