Pleading to a crime is not something that should be taken lightly. Your life, freedom and reputation are on the line. So should you plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’?
A common myth among those not familiar with the system is if you immediately plead guilty the judge will take it easy on you. While it is true that one of the factors at sentencing is whether you take responsibility and accountability for your actions, a judge is not going to hold it against you if you ensure that all your legal issues are addressed. In fact it is expected.
When you will enter a plea depends on whether you have been charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor, then you will be given an opportunity to plead at your initial appearance in court, they call this initial appearance an ‘arraignment’. The judge will ask you how you plead, and you will have to either plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.
If you have been charged with a felony, then you will not generally be asked to plea at your initial court appearance. The reason you do not plead at your initial appearance on a felony is because your initial appearance will be in magistrate court, and a magistrate judge cannot take a plea on a felony charge. You will not be able to enter a plea until your case has been ‘bound over’ to district court after the magistrate court finds that there is probable cause to bind the case over. The only exception to this rule that you do not enter a plea to a felony at your initial appearance is when you have been indicted by a grand jury. In that case of an indictment your first appearance will be in district court, and so you will be asked to enter a plea at your initial appearance in court.
Entering a plea of ‘not guilty’ does not mean that you are guaranteed to go straight to trial. There is a discovery phase prior to trial where your attorney can get police reports, witness statements, and other evidence that the State will try to use against you at trial. Your attorney will be able to conduct an independent investigation of the case. Your attorney will be allowed to contact witnesses, and question them prior to trial. Your attorney can file motions that will give you an advantage at trial if you win the motion. Some motions can even get the case dismissed. You can always change your plea prior to going to trial, and you might even get a better offer from the prosecuting attorney prior to trial.
Pleading ‘not guilty’ gives you the chance to negotiate with the prosecutor for a plea bargain. Sometimes the prosecutors will over charge you. Just because you may be guilty of some of the charges, does not mean you are guilty of all of the charges. Similarly, just because you are guilty of something does not necessarily mean you are guilty of what the prosecutors have charged you with. Crimes have elements, and the State must prove each of those elements beyond a reasonable doubt. If one of the elements cannot be proven, then you cannot, and should not be convicted of the charge.
If you have been charged with a criminal charge, whether it be a misdemeanor or a felony, you should contact an attorney to discuss your options. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court can provide you with a public defender (his services will be subject to future reimbursement). Do not attempt to handle a case on your own.