When an individual is arrested for a felony offense or misdemeanor, they will have a chance to respond to the criminal charges against them as part of the court proceedings immediately before a trial. This is known as a plea hearing, during which the defendant has the option to give a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere. How the defendant pleads determines the next steps for the case. Either the offender will be charged with a sentence or the case will be adjourned for trial before the courts.
The US justice system dictates that the type of crime committed holds an impact on how the process goes and when the hearing will take place. This is also dependent on whether the crime is considered a state or federal offense. In this article, we offer an overview of what happens at plea hearings to best prepare your client for the proceedings moving forward.
What is a Plea Hearing in a Criminal Case?
As per the American legal system, all individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In most criminal cases, a verdict of guilty must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. This can either be determined through there being enough evidence presented by the prosecution during the trial, or the defendant can plead guilty to the crime.
A plea court hearing is an opportunity for the defendant to respond to the criminal charges against them and enter a guilty plea before going to trial. They could alternatively offer a response of not guilty, meaning they do not admit to committing the crime, or of nolo contendere (no contest), which is where the offender accepts conviction but does not admit guilt. The plea hearing typically occurs immediately before the trial itself. However, if the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, they will receive their sentencing from the judge with no need to go to trial.
It is important to distinguish between a plea hearing and plea bargaining. Although both sound similar, they are different parts of criminal proceedings. The former refers to this hearing in front of the judge, whereas the latter refers to the plea negotiations between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. A plea bargain may or may not occur during a plea court hearing, depending on the defendant’s response to the criminal activity.
What Happens at a Plea Hearing?
At a plea hearing, the defendant will sit in front of the judge in the courts with their defense attorney. The judge will then explain the criminal charges against the defendant and the potential sentences and penalties associated with the offense. They’ll also explain that there are three options available for the defendant: to plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere for the charges. The defendant’s trial rights will then be explained and include:
- The right to a trial in front of a jury
- The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt
- The right to have witnesses appear at trial both for and against the defendant
- The right to remain silent when at trial
- The right to testify at trial if the defendant wishes to do so
If the defendant pleads not guilty or no contest, these rights to trial will be removed. Typically, the defendant will have to sign an “Advice of Rights” document before the plea hearing, which states that by making a guilty or no contest plea that they will be giving up these rights. The judge will check the defendant’s understanding of this at the hearing. Some defense attorneys will have their clients sign a new copy of the “Advice of Rights” form at the hearing to ensure understanding, but this is not required.
After ensuring that nothing is standing in the way of the defendant making a plea — such as threats or promises of financial gain — and that they are making the plea of their own free will, the judge will then ask you for the defendant’s response to the criminal charges. What happens next depends on the plea given:
- Guilty: When pleading guilty, the case will be resolved without the need to go to trial. They may be sentenced immediately, or an adjournment may be requested and a later plea sentencing hearing will be scheduled. This allows for the completion of pre-sentence reports, which are essentially a document that gives the judge the full background of the defendant to decide the most appropriate punishment. Whether or not this happens will depend on the nature of the crime committed.
- No Contest: A no contest or nolo contendere plea has the same outcome as a guilty plea in that the case is closed. The defendant will face sentencing as decided by the judge and will be subject to the same penalties as if the offender entered a guilty plea.
- Not Guilty: If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will be adjourned and a trial date will be set for the future. The steps between the plea hearing and the trial will depend on the type of offense that has been committed, which we will discuss in more detail below.
Plea Hearings for Misdemeanor vs. Felony Offenses
How a plea hearing fits into the criminal proceedings depends on the type of crime the offender has been arrested for, be that a felony case or misdemeanor. In misdemeanor cases — such as driving without a license, petty theft, vandalism, or resisting arrest — the first hearing will happen within 24 hours of being arrested. This is also known as the initial appearance or arraignment hearing. During this part of the proceedings, the criminal defendant is made aware of the criminal charges and allowed to respond and enter a plea. In these cases, there is no right to a preliminary hearing. Instead, the judge determines an appropriate sentence or the case will go to trial.
For a felony offense, the defendant will also make a plea at their initial appearance. However, the government may also enter a plea bargain in an attempt to avoid trial if the prosecution has solid grounds for a case. If the defendant still pleads not guilty, these individuals then have the right to a preliminary hearing. In federal court, this is within 14 days of the initial appearance if the defendant is in jail, or 21 days if they are out on bail. However, if the crime falls under state law, then the timeline depends on the specific laws for each jurisdiction. At this hearing, there is the potential for the case to be dismissed if not enough probable cause is brought forward by the prosecution. It is essentially like a mini-trial before the lengthy and typically more expensive trial commences.
Plea hearings are an important part of all criminal cases and allow the defendant to decide how they wish to plead. However, a skilled criminal attorney should always be consulted before offering any response to the charges. You need to have a full understanding of the plea agreement or deal you are entering into. Depending on the case, it may be better to plead not guilty and face trial, or enter a plea bargain for a better outcome. By familiarizing yourself with the procedure and the steps, you can ensure the best outcome for your client.