At some point in the early stages of
criminal proceedings, whether at the first court appearance or a subsequent arraignment,
courts ask defendants how they choose to plead. In the overwhelming majority of
cases, it makes most sense for defendants to plead not guilty at this point.
Defendants can almost always change their not-guilty pleas at some later point
in the proceedings, but the same isn’t true of guilty (or no-contest) pleas.
Defendants routinely enter initial pleas of not guilty, then plead guilty or no
contest after their lawyers have reached deals with the prosecution. (For a discussion of deals offered at arraignment and the importance of having a lawyer, see Representing Yourself at Arraignment.)
Here are some reasons why defendants
initially plead “not guilty.”
- No lawyer.
Many defendants don’t have anyone representing them to start. They haven’t
received any qualified legal advice. For example, a defendant hasn’t heard from
a lawyer about potential defenses or errors by the government, or the
tendencies of different judges and prosecutors.
discovery. Oftentimes, defendants haven’t received any discovery
by the time they’re asked to plead. The police report is usually the most
important part of discovery in the early going. Without it,
defendants may have little idea of the strength of the evidence against them.
And even with the police report, but without further discovery (like
photographs, recordings, and more) and investigation
(including consultation with experts), the defendant still might not know the strength
of the prosecution’s case. Police reports often contain limited information—they
also can include misinformation, whether due to intentional deception or error
by officers or witnesses.
promises. With some exceptions, defendants who plead guilty early on don’t
know what the sentence will be. The point of plea bargaining—which typically
occurs after initial appearances or arraignments—is to receive some kind of
benefit in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea. Without having a lawyer
who has negotiated with the prosecution, a defendant who pleads guilty can be subject
to the whim of prosecutors and judges.
ramifications. Particularly without representation, people who’ve been
accused of crime aren’t immediately aware of potential ramifications of
conviction. Even if the court technically advises them that they will, for
example, lose their drivers’ licenses or have to register as sex offenders,
they may not fully understand. Plus, there are consequences to conviction that
the court might not explain, such as loss of a job, endangerment of a
professional license, or a harmful result in another legal proceeding (for
example, a presumption against child custody for someone convicted of domestic
violence). With a lawyer’s assistance, defendants who don’t have a
reasonable chance at dismissal or acquittal may be able to plead to charges that
don’t carry the same ramifications.