Once you’ve been charged with a crime, you’ll eventually have an arraignment. This is the initial court appearance where the charges against you will be formally presented. Then, you will typically be asked to enter a plea. That can be pretty scary to do if you’re unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and the consequences of each plea.
The three common pleas at an arraignment are “guilty,” “not guilty” and “no contest” Here’s a breakdown of each plea and what each would mean for your case.
By pleading guilty, you are admitting that you committed the offense(s) as charged. It is a voluntary admission of guilt and a waiver of your right to a trial. Choosing this plea means that you accept all the consequences and penalties associated with the charges. It also means giving up your right to jury trial and appeals regarding your conviction – but it’s often done to secure a better sentence or some other concession from the authorities.
Not guilty pleas
A not guilty plea asserts that you believe you are innocent or that the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Pleading not guilty does not mean you will not have a trial – but it preserves the presumption of innocence that you have and forces the prosecution to present evidence in court to prove their case. It generally preserves your rights, including leaving an opening for an appeal (if you are not acquitted).
No contest pleas
A no contest or “nolo contendere” plea essentially says, “I do not contest the charges.” It means you are not admitting guilt, but you will also not dispute the charges or contest them in court. This plea has similar legal consequences to a guilty plea in terms of sentencing and penalties. Typically, defendants plead no contest when they are concerned about civil liabilities related to the same incident that led to criminal charges. For example, if you were charged in connection with a bar fight, you may want to avoid admitting guilt if there’s a potential for a personal injury case by another party that was involved.
How you should plead in court depends a lot on your circumstances. Seeking legal guidance can help you decide which plea is in your best interest, considering the potential consequences at stake and the strength of the prosecution’s case.