A plea is heard by a judge at an accused's first court hearing (arraignment). In response to a criminal charge they can plead guilty, not guilty, no contest or to an Alford plea. Click here to read an explanation of no contest or an Alford plea on the page dealing with the topic of Arraignment.
Under common law, a guilty plea, accepted by the defendant averts a trial based on the charges pending against them. This creates what's known under U.S. law as plea bargaining. A defendant may plead guilty to a criminal charge, waiving his right to a trial by jury in in the hopes of receiving a more lenient sentence. The prosecution or government may offer a plea deal to the defendant's attorney which he will bring to his client. The defendant will then have to decide whether they want to accept the arrangement or go to trial. A plea deal will lower the amount of time a defendant will face if found guilty in court, and in Capital crimes take the death penalty off the table. It is also in the interest of the prosecuting body to offer a plea arrangement in their attempt to save the expense of a trial.
Plea agreements make up a substantial portion of the criminal justice process. Nearly ninety percent of all criminal cases contested in the United States are finalized by plea bargain rather than necessitating a trial by jury. All plea agreements are subject to court approval. Federal Sentencing Guidelines are in effect in federal cases and different States have varying rules.
For non-violent or minor criminal charges such as Driving under the Influence (DUI), sentencing for the acceptance of a guilty plea can take place directly after a plea is accepted or otherwise almost immediately. But a judge will set a later sentencing date for an individual who accepts a guilty plea in a case of a major felony which is punishable by an extended term of incarceration. This is known as the sentencing phase of the trial.
An attorney whose client intends to go to court will usually enter a not guilty plea which can always be changed at a later time.
Entering a not guilty plea is essentially refuting the charges brought forth against the accused. A person who believes he's innocent of any and all allegations brought against them should obviously plead not guilty to those charges, requiring their case to be tried before a jury. But in some cases evidence that is damaging to their case, gathered by the prosecuting authorities may sway the defendant to accept a plea deal even though they believe they hold no guilt or have reasonable explanation of the prosecution's allegations. Careful discussion with counsel weighing all the facts should be considered before a decision such as this is acted upon.
A plea of not guilty will also be entered to give an attorney time to go over all aspects of the charges brought against their client and give them time to analyze the evidence and pursue a winning strategy if the case goes forward. A knowledgeable attorney will be able to give proper advice to his client before a case goes to trial whether continuing the process, or accepting a plea bargain is in their best interests. However, the final decision is always left for the client to decide.
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