Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pleading Out

What are the chances that before this case is over, either Mr. Cuadra or Mr. Kerekes (or both) will throw in the towel and just plead guilty to the charges? The short answer would be, “mighty high,” if only because that’s what most defendants do.

A video from the Criminal Justice channel has some basic information. But what makes a proper plea bargain? Well, it has two parts: the information and the waiver. Both are required.

First, the client has to know what he’s doing. He has to be represented by counsel, and has to be informed of all the consequences incumbent with his plea.

Next, he has to voluntarily waive certain of his rights. In effect, a plea bargain is like a supercharged version of that Miranda waiver that police try to get bad guys to sign so that they might be questioned. Only in this instance, the defendant is essentially waiving his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in toto.

If proof of one of the two elements is missing, the judge will throw out the plea deal. That’s right, before it’s done, the whole thing has to go before the trial judge to get him or her to sign off. The judge is under no legal compulsion to agree to the deal.

In practice, however, plea agreements are seldom invalidated by the bench. The agreements do get breeched from time to time—usually because prosecutors find out that the defendant lied about something during the course of plea negotiations.

Now, there is also a special sort of guilty plea that pops up very rarely: the Alford plea. That’s a plain, old guilty plea with a twist: the defendant does not admit guilt. In all other ways— in sentencing, as a record of previous bad acts in subsequent trials, as a criminal step toward Habitual Offender status— the Alford plea is just like a standard guilty plea. It's also peculiar and passingly infrequent.

Finally, there’s the plea that uniquely splits the difference between guilty and not guilty: No contest (AKA nolo contendere, among the guys who took Latin in prep school to boost their SAT Verbals.)
A defendant who pleads ‘no contest’ is basically refusing to put up a legal fight. In essence, he gets treated thereafter just as if he had pleaded guilty, except the plea “is in no way an admission of guilt and [differs from an Alford plea in that] it cannot be introduced in future trials as evidence of incorrigibility. Nevertheless, courts do not have to accept a plea of nolo contendere, and usually do not, except in certain nonviolent cases.” [*]