Guilty Plea

2012-07-09 09:44:31

A guilty plea is a formal admission of guilt by a criminal defendant. A plea is not simply a confession, but also is a conviction. Individuals who plead guilty give up a number of constitutional rights, including the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination, the right to a trial by jury, and the right to confront one’s accusers. Because guilty pleas eliminate the need for the state to prove guilt at trial, they are an inexpensive and efficient way to adjudicate criminal responsibility. The vast majority of convictions in the United States result from guilty pleas.

The Supreme Court, in Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969), held that a valid guilty plea requires ‘‘an intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or privilege.’’ The defendant must be competent, and the judge cannot accept the plea without an affirmative showing that it was voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. In order to be voluntary, a plea cannot result from improper government coercion, such as actual or threatened physical harm. It may be inherently coercive to impose longer sentences on defendants who go to trial instead of pleading guilty, but courts have accepted this practice. Thus, if a defendant enters a plea to avoid a longer sentence post-trial, the plea is still considered voluntary. Conversely, while prosecutorial vindictiveness is impermissible, under Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357 (1978), a post-trial conviction is not invalid simply because the prosecutor makes good on a threat to bring more severe charges if the defendant refuses to plead guilty.

A plea must also be knowing and intelligent, meaning that the defendant must be told the elements of the crime and nature of the charges. In Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976), the Supreme Court found a plea invalid because the defendant had not been told that an intent to cause the victim’s death was an element of second-degree murder. The requirement that a plea be knowing and intelligent is related to voluntariness: because a guilty plea is an admission of the elements of a crime, it cannot be truly voluntary unless the defendant understands the relationship of the law to the facts. In most cases, the defendant need not be told about the Collateral Consequences of the conviction, such as the loss of a driver’s license.

In the federal courts, Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure is designed to ensure that pleas are voluntary, knowing, and intelligent. The rule requires: disclosure on the record of any plea agreement; the court to ensure that there is a factual basis for the plea and that it was voluntarily offered; and the judge to inform the defendant of the nature of the charges, the maximum and minimum sentence, the applicability of Sentencing guidelines, and the rights given up by pleading guilty.

Not all jurisdictions require a factual basis for a plea. Requiring a factual basis may help prevent innocent people from pleading guilty. However, requiring a factual basis can also complicate plea bargaining since the facts may not support the lesser charges to which the defendant would agree to plead guilty. In North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), the Supreme Court, noting that there was a strong factual basis for the plea, upheld the conviction of a man who pled guilty but maintained his innocence. Consequently so-called ‘‘Alford pleas,’’ which are specifically provided for in Rule 11, allow the court to accept a defendant’s guilty plea even though the defendant does not admit actual guilt, so long as the court finds that it is reasonable for someone in the defendant’s position to plead guilty.

Once entered, a guilty plea is difficult to withdraw.A defendant generally needs a ‘‘fair and just’’ reason to withdraw the plea before sentence is imposed. Some jurisdictions bar any attempt to withdraw a plea after sentence is imposed; others allow withdrawal, but only to correct manifest injustice. However, if a plea is not voluntary, intelligent, and knowing, a defendant may attack it by seeking to withdraw it or by raising the issue on appeal. A withdrawn guilty plea is inadmissible.

By pleading guilty, the defendant waives almost all claims regarding any prior constitutional or other inadequacies in the adjudicative process. A guilty plea does not waive jurisdictional challenges, challenges based on ineffective assistance of counsel, or claims of prosecutorial retaliation. Some jurisdictions allow conditional pleas, under which the defendant pleads guilty but is allowed to appeal specific rulings that could otherwise not be appealed. The use of conditional pleas may promote plea bargaining, since the defendant need not go to trial to preserve an issue, such as a search and seizure challenge, that could turn the entire case around on appeal. In most cases the prosecutor must consent to, and the court must approve, the conditional plea.

Many guilty pleas result from plea bargaining. Plea bargaining may involve modification of the charges by the prosecutor, a prosecutorial Sentencing recommendation, a judicial indication of the likely sentence, or some combination of these. Plea bargains are akin to contracts, and many principles of contract law apply. Thus, under Ricketts v. Adamson, 483 U.S. 1 (1987), double jeopardy does not prevent a state from bringing additional charges against a defendant who breaches a plea agreement.

Advocates of plea bargaining argue that guilty pleas conserve judicial resources; ensure prompt and efficient application of criminal punishment; enable defendants to acknowledge guilt; avoid trial in cases where this would be undesirable; allow defendants to bargain for lower sentences in return for giving up some rights or cooperating with prosecutors; and permit both prosecutors and defendants to avoid the uncertainty of trial. Proponents also contend that the criminal justice system, as presently constituted and funded, simply could not cope if every case went to trial. Critics of plea bargaining maintain that the system forces innocent people to plead guilty; exacts an unfairly high price from defendants who exercise their constitutional right to go to trial; allocates decision- making authority to prosecutors rather than judges; disadvantages the indigent; and camouflages the injustices of the criminal justice system.


References and Further Reading

  • Alschuler, Albert, The Supreme Court, the Defense Attorney, and the Guilty Plea, University of Colorado Law Review 47 (1975): 1–71.
  • Easterbrook, Frank H., Plea Bargaining as Compromise, Yale Law Journal 101 (1992): 1969–1978.
  • Fisher, George. Plea Bargaining’s Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Schulhofer, Stephen, Plea Bargaining as Disaster, Yale Law Journal 101 (1992) 1979–2009.
  • Scott, Robert, and William Stuntz, Plea Bargaining as Contract, Yale Law Journal 101 (1992): 1909–1968.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357 (1978)
  • Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969)
  • Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976)
  • North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970)
  • Ricketts v. Adamson, 483 U.S. 1 (1987)
  • Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971)

See also Blackledge v. Perry, 417 U.S. 21 (1974); Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357 (1978); Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969); Double Jeopardy: Modern History; North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970); Plea Bargaining; Ricketts v. Adamson, 483 U.S. 1 (1987); Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971)