Understanding Plea Options in Your Criminal Case

How do you plead? It’s a question you’ve probably heard on television shows but never thought you’d be asked. When facing criminal charges in Florida, it is important to understand the different plea options available and how each of them could affect your situation.

The plea that will be most beneficial for you will depend on the specific facts of your case and your individual circumstances. An experienced Tampa criminal defense lawyer can review the factors involved and help you determine the best option for you.

Types of Plea Options

There are three different ways you can plead when charged with a crime in Florida. You will make your plea at your arraignment hearing after the charges against you are read. You can then plead either guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Or you can refuse to enter a plea at all.

What Is a Guilty Plea?

When you plead guilty you are admitting that you committed the crime for which you are charged. Once you have admitted guilt, your case will proceed to the next phase, which is sentencing.

What Is a Not Guilty Plea?

A not guilty plea is just what it sounds like: a denial of guilt. Some people plead not guilty because they truly did not commit the crime for which they are charged and wish to go to trial and prove their innocence in the court of law. Other reasons defendants may plead not guilty are because:

  • They have not yet retained the services of a lawyer, or they haven’t had a chance to speak to their attorney.
  • They and their attorney have not yet decided on the best strategy for their case.
  • They are unsure of what evidence the prosecution has against them, so they wish to go through discovery (a phase where the defense and prosecution exchange information with each other).

Even if a person initially pleads not guilty, they can change their plea later on if it is to their benefit to do so, such as if they are being offered a deal by prosecutors.

What Is a No Contest Plea?

A “no contest” or nolo contendere plea means that you are neither admitting nor denying guilt. It is similar to a guilty plea in that it results in conviction for the defendant without a trial. So why plead no contest if you will be punished anyway? For some people it can be a matter of not admitting guilt and responsibility. They may wish not to publicly take responsibility for their own personal reasons or to avoid liability if they are being sued or expect to be sued in a civil case related to their crime, for example.

Can I Refuse to Enter a Plea at All?

You can refuse to enter a plea, but whether you should is another matter. Sometimes, people don’t enter a plea as a personal statement or in protest against the charges against them or against the legal system itself. Other times, a defendant may simply be trying to delay or disrupt the proceedings by not entering a plea. Typically, when a person refuses to enter a plea in Florida, the judge will enter a not guilty plea on their behalf, and the case will go forward toward trial.

What Should You Consider When Choosing a Plea?

The following list of considerations is not all-inclusive, but it provides a few general things to consider when choosing a plea:

  • With a guilty plea, you take responsibility for your criminal actions, which could potentially result in a reduced sentence.
  • If you plead guilty or no contest, you waive your right to a trial and the possibility of being found innocent.
  • When people are on probation or parole, pleading guilty or no contest can result in consequences for violating those, on top of the punishment for the newer crime.
  • If you refuse to enter a plea at all, the jury and/or judge may view you unfavorably, which could be detrimental to your case.

Your criminal defense attorney will advise you when determining how to plead based on the crime you are charged with, the strength of the evidence against you, whether you have been convicted of other crimes in the past, and all the unique details of your case. With that being said, the ultimate choice of how to plead is up to you and not your attorney.

Should You Take a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is pleading guilty to a lower charge in exchange for a reduced sentence. The answer to the question of whether you should accept a plea bargain is “it depends.” It may be the right choice if your crime is severe and the evidence against you is strong. If you have been convicted of other felonies and your current charge is a felony, a plea bargain that drops your charge to a misdemeanor could keep you from running up against the state’s “three-strikes” law.

But if you have a reasonable chance of winning at trial or the charge you plead to in the plea bargain does not get you a significantly reduced penalty, it may not be the choice for you.

You will not automatically be offered a plea bargain. It is something that your criminal defense attorney will negotiate with the prosecutor if it is in your interests. An attorney who understands your situation can help you make an informed decision as to whether you should take a plea bargain that is offered.

Get Help from Our Tampa Criminal Defense Lawyers

The plea you make in your criminal case can affect you and your family for the rest of your life. It is not a choice to make lightly and not one to make without legal guidance from a criminal defense attorney.

Our experienced lawyers at Metcalf Falls, Criminal Defense Attorneys, P.A. can help you understand your plea options and what you should consider when deciding how to plead. Call us at 813-258-4800 or contact us online to arrange a confidential consultation.