At some point in the early stages of criminal cases, whether at the first court appearance or a later arraignment, judges ask defendants how they choose to plead. It often makes sense for a defendant to plead not guilty at this point. A defendant can usually change a not-guilty plea at some later point in the proceedings, but the same generally isn't true of a guilty (or no-contest) plea.
Defendants routinely enter an initial plea of not guilty, then plead guilty or no contest after the defense lawyer has reached a deal with the prosecution. (For a discussion of deals offered at arraignment and the importance of having a lawyer, see our article on 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 police or prosecution, or the tendencies of different judges and prosecutors.
- No 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.
- No promises. With some exceptions, defendants who plead guilty early on don't know what the sentence will be. The point of plea bargaining—which often 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.
- Uncertain consequences. Particularly without representation, people who've been accused of crime aren't immediately aware of potential consequences 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.