As our Network President Marty Hayes indicated in his column last month, we often turn to our Affiliated Attorneys for a broader understanding of how various principles of law are applied across the nation. Looking more deeply into one of the issues the Washington Office of Insurance Commissioner originally raised but later dropped, we asked our affiliated attorneys to share their knowledge and experience with innocent clients who plead guilty when given an attractive plea offer. We asked--
Why might an innocent person choose to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit? Have you seen this occur first-hand?
So many attorneys wrote in to share their thoughts that while we anticipated wrapping up this question in this edition, we will have more commentaries from attorneys practicing in different states in our November journal.
Steven M. Harris
14260 W. Newberry Road #320, Newberry, FL 32669-2765
In the case of a person who has used force in defense of property, self, or another, “innocent” is probably an inaccurate description. A defendant who asserts justification for the use of force admits all the elements of the charged crime(s). The force user has “committed” the crime; the defense is an affirmative assertion of avoidance. Reasonable belief, imminence, and/or necessity are usually in play and thus, a force user who goes to trial submits him/herself to the judgment (or impulses) of a jury. Reasons a person might plead guilty to a crime while believing they could be acquitted at trial:
- Good plea offered (misdemeanor, Alford or nolo contendere) which avoids collateral consequences
- Bad advice from lawyer
- Being held in jail pretrial without bond
- Health or family concerns
- Plea likely to result in probation
- Prosecutor has more serious crime(s) that could be charged which will be resolved by a plea to what is already charged
- Lack of resources to fund trial costs
- Client has to testify to be acquitted but makes a terrible witness
- Client made inculpatory or socially unacceptable statements before or after using defensive force which are admissible
- Defendant lost a pretrial immunity motion and the judge’s order tanks the defense factually or legally
- An unfriendly petit jury has been seated
- The jury is out and the state is looking to deal, expecting an acquittal
- A new trial has been granted after conviction and the prosecutor is now reasonable.
Randy L. Robinson
Attorney at Law
PO Box 682, Augusta, ME 04330
An innocent person might be found guilty of a more serious crime for which they will not be prosecuted if they enter the guilty plea in a less serious case.
This can also be the case if they have cases pending in several different places, in which case they are not entirely pure as the driven snow, even if they didn’t commit one particular crime.
Kevin L. Jamison
2614 NE 56th Terrace, Kansas City, MO 64119
When I began practicing an experienced lawyer described going to trial as “rolling the dice.” The old maxim is “The odds favor the house.” When you go to trial you are gambling with your future, your reputation and a great deal of your money.
A client of mine took a ride with new friends. They stopped at a gas station and one of the new friends decided to improve the visit by robbing the place. He ran out with a pistol in one hand and cash in another. He thrust the cash at her with the order to hide it. She was in the back seat of a two-door car and had no means of escape. The car got 100 yards away before all the badges in the world descended on it.
My client was charged with accessory to robbery. I told her that there was no possible way for them to prove this charge. She was unable to bond out and as time went on other passengers pled guilty and left the jail; with probation and a felony record. She demanded the same deal. I advised against it and she wrote to the prosecutor demanding to plead guilty. The prosecutor was happy to indulge her and we went before the judge. As part of the procedure she was required to recount what she had done. When she finished the judge looked at me and asked if that account supported the charge. I admitted it did not. The judge refused to accept the plea and we were set for trial.
My client continued to demand to plead guilty. The prosecution amended the charge to concealing evidence (the cash). She had done so at the command of a man with a gun. I advised her that we could beat that charge. She insisted on pleading guilty. This time the judge accepted the plea. A young innocent suddenly had a felony record.
Prisons are considered better places to do time than county jails. A client contracted hepatitis in a county jail; another COVID. Boredom beats down the resistance of other defendants. A reduced charge with no prison time can become awfully attractive. On rare occasions I advise against a plea. In the end it is the client’s decision, not mine. I go home imagining how I might have presented a defense.
Thomas F. Jacobs, Esq.
Law Office of Thomas Jacobs
271 North Stone Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701
A person might find himself/herself in a situation where circumstantial evidence strongly points to guilt and there is not enough objectively verifiable evidence to create reasonable doubt. The State may rely upon circumstantial evidence in arguing that the defendant is guilty, and that such finding may be made beyond a reasonable doubt. Classic example used by prosecutors in closing statement: You go into the courthouse and the street/sidewalk is dry. There are no clouds in the sky. You come out several hours later and the sidewalk and street are wet, the air smells like desert rain, but there are still no clouds. You can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it rained while you were inside even though you did not see the rain, and you did not talk to anyone who did. This is circumstantial evidence.
On occasion, a person accused of a crime will have a justification defense, such as self defense, defense of a third party or crime prevention. An affirmative defense requires that the defendant proffer some proof that his or her conduct that would otherwise be regarded as criminal (use of a weapon to assault or kill someone, for example). Usually such proof need only be sufficient to create reasonable doubt as to the issue, but some jurisdictions (including Arizona until a number of years ago) require proof of such justification by a preponderance of the evidence. The essence of an affirmative defense is the necessary admission to the act (assault, homicide, display of a firearm, etc). Thus, if the justification is not accepted by the jury, a conviction is likely to follow, along with usually severe consequences. Those lawfully employing deadly force are often charged with serious criminal offenses, even where justification is available as a defense.
If a person is faced with the possibility of conviction, however slight, a decision may be made to accept a plea if the consequences of conviction are severe (mandatory and lengthy prison term usually). Classically, in Arizona, this is called an Alford Plea (see State of Arizona v. Alford), and is actually a plea of “no contest” to a lesser charge with less severe consequences. This does not require an admission of guilty, but rather an acknowledgment that a jury might accept the State’s evidence as sufficient proof of guilt. A plea of “no contest” does not have to be an “Alford plea,” which weighs the consequences of conviction. It may simply be an admission that conviction is likely, and a plea to a lesser charge is reasonable.
I have practiced as a criminal defense attorney for over 30 years. In that time, I have seen clients plead guilty to crimes they say they did not commit. Usually, however, I will not permit this since pleading guilty requires admission of a “factual basis” that supports the conclusion that the person committed the crime. If the client is not able to truthfully admit those facts, the guilty plea is not possible. In those instances where I have permitted clients to enter such pleas after they privately denied liability, the facts have been so overwhelming as to render the client’s story disclaiming liability incredible. Therefore, I regarded the admission as truthful.
Joseph Radzwion IV
Radzwion Law PLLC
17017 E 12 Mile Rd, Roseville, MI 48066
Yes. Clients typically will plea down to something that the prosecutor is offering because they don’t want to have to deal with the court system. The pleas I’m talking about are mostly minor traffic offenses and misdemeanors.
Jerold E. Levine, Esq.
Attorney At Law
5 Sunrise Plaza, Suite 102, Valley Stream, NY 11580
Why would a defendant plead guilty to an offense they did not commit?
- The defendant cannot financially afford to contest the charges.
- Despite innocence, the defendant fears possible conviction, and so prefers a no-jail plea rather than risk conviction and imprisonment.
- The defendant wants the case to go away quickly so that other people will not find out about the charges (ie: wife, friends, boss).
- The defendant cannot endure the emotional stress that the case is causing them, and just wants it all to end.
- The defendant believed that by pleading guilty, it might lessen the anger of people who were wronged by the defendant, and would cause those people to leave the defendant alone and/or perhaps not pursue a civil case against the defendant. (“He’s learned his lesson, and is being punished.”)
- The defendant was counseled poorly by their attorney, and did not understand the possible ramifications of pleading guilty (ie: employment, professional licensing, business licensing, gun licensing or loss of gun rights, apartment rental [landlords do background checks today], etc.).
- The defendant mistakenly believed, or was mis-advised, that a later expungement would totally clear their record. While private persons ordinarily cannot obtain an expunged record, expungement does not eliminate the ability of the government to access the record under certain circumstances. In New York and New Jersey, the government can access expunged or sealed records in matters regarding law enforcement employment and gun licensing.
I have seen all of these scenarios, and more.
We extend a hearty “Thank you!” to our affiliated attorneys who contributed comments about this topic. Reader, please return next month for the conclusion of answers to this question from our affiliated attorneys.
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.