A lot of people I speak you believe they are guilty, feel terrible about a mistake. They are ashamed, embarrassed, and just want to get the situation resolved and over with. They know they did the crime, and believe they are dead to rights. Maybe there are witnesses, videotape, or other incontrovertible evidence suggesting that you are guilty.
And we are taught as children that admitting guilt when we’ve made a mistake is the honest and honorable thing.
But I am here to tell you that you should still not plead guilty automatically. Here is why.
When I speak to people about a criminal charge, I am regularly humbled by how decent, open, and remorseful people can be. Many clients are absolutely willing to fully accept responsibility for a mistake.
But pleading guilty right away could give the prosecutor the power to give you any sentence he chooses, up to the maximum.
There is no justice in accepting a bigger punishment than you really deserve.
And a guilty plea might screw up your future in a number of ways. It can cause difficulty on job applications, financial aid at college, background checks, and more.
Guilty under the law means giving up your legal rights and your legitimate role in agreeing to a fair deal. You are submitting yourself to a system that isn’t always fair, and that is something you don’t want to do until you know where you stand. You can set yourself up for a world of unfair outcomes and penalties without any recourse if you aren’t careful. And that isn’t fair to you.
Guilty is final. It means almost nothing you say afterward has any effect, or can undo it. New facts are extremely difficult to enter into the evidence.
You don’t want to admit you are guilty until you understand exactly what you are admitting to, and what penalty you are accepting. That is the foundation of our justice system.
This is why virtually EVERYONE pleads not guilty at an arraignment when they are first charged with a crime. Judges routinely enter a plea of not guilty on your behalf if you don’t have an attorney present, and it isn’t because they don’t think anyone is every guilty.
It’s because you need a chance to fully understand the consequences of pleading guilty, and you deserve that time to understand and review it with a lawyer.
Consequences of a Guilty Plea
Besides a conviction on your record, a plea of guilty can impact you in other ways.
If you are on probation for a plea deal for a conviction or a CWOF, your probation will typically restrict you from leaving the state. If you a have a trip planned for work, school, or just a vacation, leaving could violate the terms of your probation.
License to Carry a Firearm
A guilty plea can be a factor in getting a job certification or clearance for sensitive jobs or those requiring security. A conviction can get your license to carry a firearm revoked. And there may be other consequences of a guilty finding, which your attorney can prevent before they happen.
Can I Avoid a Criminal Conviction on My Record?
What are the Options for Deferred, Dropped, & Alternative Sentencing?
Yes, there are many alternatives to pleading guilty that allow you options and opportunities to avoid a criminal record under the law. These provisions exist in the law for a reason. It is not wrong or unfair to take advantage of them.
Clerk’s Hearing – If you’ve received a summons to appear at a clerk magistrate’s hearing, you have to appear before a magistrate who will decide if there is sufficient evidence or cause to move forward with a formal criminal complaint. It is also sometimes called a “show cause” hearing.
I wrote a book on clerk magistrate’s hearing and have a whole page with info on these hearings, and how this is the best opportunity to beat your case, and make the charge go away.
For minor offenses, like shoplifting, leaving the scene of an accident, or minor in possession of alcohol, there is an opportunity to get a case dropped, even when there is almost certainly enough evidence of a crime to proceed.
This is true despite the fact that the standard for probable cause for a criminal charge at a magistrate’s hearing is honestly not very high. And for slightly more serious charges, like OUI, a complaint is routinely issued, so those are more challenging to win outright.
But even if you know you did something wrong, the case can often get dropped here. We win the majority of our clerk’s hearings.
That’s because the law allows the Clerks presiding over these hearings a very wide discretion in deciding these cases. For fairly minor charges, where no one was harmed, it was a first offense, and any damages or costs are paid for, I can often get the clerk to agree that a criminal charge is not in anyone’s interest and doesn’t serve the cause of justice.
Diversion Programs – There are several different types of diversion programs that “divert” your case around the criminal justice system, and allow you a chance to avoid a charge, assuming you meet the criteria and comply with the requirements. If you are accepted and complete the diversion program, the case is dropped.
- Pretrial diversion is available for those between 17-21 years old and accused of a first offense of a non-violent crime. With this result, you may have to participate in community service, alcohol or drug treatment, anger management classes, or other programs as required by the judge. And you have to avoid any other trouble with the law during this time.
- Drug dependent diversion is another option in drug-related cases. If the court agrees that the defendant would benefit from drug rehabilitation, then you are diverted to a rehab program under the 111e drug dependent diversion provision of the law.
- There are specific diversion programs for Veterans under the Valor Act that are available for a broad number of offenses.
Upon successful completion of a diversion program, the charge is voided like it never happened, so your record stays clean. There are some downsides, such as if you fail to complete the program, you give up your right to contest the facts of your guilty, so if you slip up, you could end up with a harsher penalty than if you had simply pleaded guilty in the first place. But it can be a great opportunity for many people to avoid a criminal conviction on their record.
Pretrial Probation – This is similar to a diversion program but even better. There are typically no requirements to complete the program, it is simply a cooling-off period where you have to avoid any trouble. And if you do get in trouble, you haven’t forfeited your rights to contest the charges, as is typical in a diversion program.
Here are more details on the difference between a pretrial diversion and pretrial probation. It gets complicated to navigate them, but that’s our job as your attorneys – to work out the best possible eligible programs for you under the law, and fight for it!
CWOF – A Continuance without a finding, or a CWOF, is an “admission of sufficient facts to find you guilty” without technically admitting guilt. It is a typical plea in first offense misdemeanor cases. It generally carries the same penalties but allows you to avoid being technically found guilty of a crime. However, for the period of the Continuance (typically 3 months to 1 year), the open case will show up on a CORI report. But for most people, a CWOF isn’t going to ruin your life.
All of these options exist to help you avoid a criminal record.
This is one of the best parts of being a criminal defense lawyer. There are many different ways I can truly help people who made a mistake, without it having to ruin their lives.
I enjoy the creativity of negotiating with the prosecutor to find the least intrusive deal that he will agree with.
Because I absolutely believe that there is no need to make your life harder than it has to be, because of a mistake. The legal system is there for your protection, and I am proud to help people navigate it as painlessly as possible so they can get back to their lives.
If you are accused of a crime, even if you know you are guilty, please call me and I’ll let you know what I can do to make your situation easier, and get you the best outcome possible.