By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Pleading guilty may be the best option in a case – but it should never be the first option. The decision to plead guilty is often not much different than the decision to get a permanent tattoo everyone can see. You should fully know and understand the consequences and alternatives before making this choice.
1. What does it mean if I Plead Not Guilty?
It means you are exercising your right to a trial by judge or jury. Every person has the right to a trial and every person has the right to plead “Not Guilty” to a criminal charge regardless of whether they committed the crime alleged. There is nothing dishonest or immoral about pleading “Not Guilty” because your claim is essentially the state or government is unable to prove your case beyond all reasonable doubt. Some backwards countries require you to prove your innocence — but the U.S. isn’t one of them. By asking the State to bring it’s proof against you — you are keeping your government accountable to the people.
2. What Rights am I Giving Up?
The framer’s of our constitution really knew what they were doing. They gave us several extremely powerful rights — which in and of themselves could actually prevent you from being convicted regardless if you are “guilty as sin” or are completely innocent. My list is only partial, but here are some of the rights you’ll waive in a guilty plea:
- The right to a jury trial, the value of which speaks for itself;
- The right to testify in your own defense and be heard — or the opposite — to remain silent so you don’t have to be exposed to harassing or abusive questions (known in the legal profession as “do you still beat your wife” questions) from the prosecutor.
- You’re waiving arguably your most important right — the right to cross examine a witness. Cross examination is a powerful way to break down the State’s case and show the jury or judge the full truth of an accuser’s account.
- You’d typically (but not always) waive your right to appeal which means barring some remarkable unknown circumstances — the case will be final once the judge accepts the plea.
3. What Are the Consequences of My Guilty Plea?
Know what you’re signing up for. Understand the differences between deferred adjudication and a conviction and ask your lawyer about how it impacts your ability to expunge (clear) or hide (non-disclose) your record. Understand the requirements you’re agreeing to if you’re accepting probation — and the punishments if you fall short. Ask about other collateral consequences particular to the type of charge you’re pleading guilty to… will it affect your right to vote? To own a firearm? Could it cost you your job, a professional license or the ability to get a professional license? If you’re agreeing to go to jail or prison, know the parole guidelines first.
4. Can I Actually be Acquitted at Trial?
I tell juries all the time the truth that, “people are acquitted in courthouses all around America every single day.” Your lawyer should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each case with you. Again, the prosecution bears the burden of proof beyond all reasonable doubt which never shifts back to you. Not only that, but you are presumed innocent. Just because some facts may look bad in your case doesn’t mean you’ll lose. Before you make the decision to plead guilty, you should know what may or may not happen at trial.
5. Will the Punishment be Worse if I Take the Case to Trial?
People often assume the prosecutor’s plea offer is a better shake than the judge or jury will give in the event you’re convicted after a trial. Often prosecutors, in making plea offers, simply don’t have their fingers on the pulse of the community. Merely because the individual prosecutor may be judgmental doesn’t mean a judge or jury will agree with them. A prosecutor asking to jail a 42 year homemaker with 3 kids for a DWI after a night of drinks with girlfriends may find the jury is angry with him for what could be seen as a mean suggestion.
6. Won’t Fighting the Case Make the Prosecutor or Judge Mad?
Maybe. But so what?
If you’re charged with a crime, you have to be far more concerned with how the case will impact you 10, 20, or 30 years down the road… long after both the judge or prosecutor have forgotten your name. Besides, the vast majority of judges I’ve been around actually appreciate strong advocacy from defense lawyers and few judges (or juries) give in to a frustrated prosecutor upset about having to prove a case.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice and for legal advice about any situation you should consult with an attorney directly. Contacting the attorney through this forum does not create an attorney-client relationship an communications sent through this forum are not privileged nor confidential.