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What Happens at a Plea Hearing?

You stand accused of a criminal offense. Now the court wants to know if you want to take it to trial, but what does that mean? Your lawyer talked to you about trials, plea bargaining, and the plea hearing, yet it still doesn't seem totally clear to you. What exactly is a plea hearing, and why do you have one?

Simply put, criminal procedure rules provide for a court hearing where a defendant responds to the criminal charges against them. The response must be one of the following: a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere, which means no contest.

In reality, there may be more than one plea hearing in your case. When a plea hearing takes place can depend on whether you are in state or federal court. It can also depend on whether you and your attorney have reached an agreement with the prosecutor on a resolution.

Here you'll find an overview of what happens at plea hearings, including matters of timing and where to find an experienced attorney. Making your way through the criminal justice system can be challenging. Whether you're facing a DUI, domestic violence, or disorderly conduct charge, you need to know your rights. You should always understand any plea, plea agreement, or plea deal reached in your case. If you aren't sure, it's important you speak with your lawyer before moving forward.

The Plea Hearing Sequence

For a law enforcement officer to arrest you for either a misdemeanor or felony charge, the police must have an arrest warrant or probable cause that you committed a crime. The district attorney decides whether there is enough evidence for charges to go forward. If they agree, court proceedings will follow sometime after your booking at the jail. If the police issued a summons and did not take you into custody, then the summons will provide the date of your arraignment in court.

In most courts, your first appearance before a judge is called your arraignment hearing. This may also be where your first plea hearing will occur. At an arraignment, the court will notify you of the formal charges filed against you. They will ask you to enter an initial plea to the charges. In most cases, a defendant enters a "not guilty" plea at this point in time. 

The court will then make a determination about whether you must post bail or be released on your own recognizance. It will also inquire whether the defendant has an attorney or can afford to hire one. If the defendant cannot afford counsel, the court can appoint a public defender to the case. If the defendant asks for an attorney, then the court will set the case over for a first court appearance with counsel, often the next day.

Misdemeanor cases

In a misdemeanor case, a judge may permit a guilty plea without counsel in some circumstances. If they do, the case proceeds to a sentencing hearing. In such cases, the judge must take care to make sure that you understand all the rights you're waiving by pleading guilty.

If you entered a not guilty plea on a misdemeanor, you'll enter a formal plea at your initial appearance with counsel. At this plea hearing, you can maintain a plea of not guilty and have the matter set for a pretrial conference and a trial date. 

You could also change your plea to one of guilty or no contest. With a plea of no contest, you don't admit guilt but permit the court to sentence you because you don't contest the charge. Once the court accepts a plea of guilty or no contest, it can proceed to sentencing at its discretion. It will often set the matter over so that a probation officer can prepare a presentence report. 

At this stage of a plea hearing, the prosecutor and defense attorney can request that the judge accept a plea bargain agreement. The court can accept or reject such an agreement at its discretion.

Felony cases

In a felony case, a judge may not let you enter into a guilty or no-contest plea at an arraignment. Instead, the judge may enter a not guilty plea on your behalf to protect your rights until you have time to talk to a private or court-appointed attorney.

If you face felony charges and plead not guilty, then a preliminary hearing is next. At this hearing, the State must present evidence supporting probable cause for a felony crime. The defense can challenge whether there is enough evidence for the felony case to go forward. It can also become a plea hearing in situations where the prosecutor and defense attorney can agree on an early resolution of the case.

If the court finds sufficient evidence at the preliminary hearing, the case may then proceed to a grand jury for an indictment. If an indictment is issued, there will be an opportunity for an arraignment and plea hearing before another judge on the indicted charges. If the defendant maintains a not guilty plea, the case will be set over for pretrial conference and jury trial on a later date.

At any of these initial plea hearings, the prosecution and defense can move forward with a plea agreement to resolve the case. The defendant can also agree to change their plea to guilty on all charges and ask the court to set a sentencing date.

Is a Plea Hearing the Same as a Plea Bargain?

While they may sound similar, a plea hearing and a plea bargain aren't the exact same thing. As stated above, a plea bargain agreement may occur at a plea hearing. A plea hearing, which occurs before a judge with all parties present, is often the step right before the trial itself. It's the forum for any last-ditch efforts to resolve the case by agreement. If the case is resolved, the defendant will then enter a plea of guilty or no contest.

A plea bargain is simply the negotiation between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. It's the action of negotiating the charges and potential sentence based on the strength of the case. The prosecutor presents the defendant with an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with a lesser sentence. 

Some people argue that plea bargaining shouldn't be available because it doesn't allow for justice to run its course, but statistics show that over 90% of cases end in a plea bargain. Based on the volume of criminal cases, court dockets would explode if every case went to trial.

The Plea Hearing Before Trial

Just as in civil cases, the trial date may act as a deadline for the prosecution and the defense to complete discovery and assess the strength of the case. Attempts at negotiating a plea agreement may be ongoing during the weeks leading up to the trial date. If no agreement can be reached, the case will proceed to trial. 

If the prosecution and defense come to acceptable terms, they will seek to present their proposal to the court for review. Depending on the court, this may occur informally in the judge's chambers or formally at a final pretrial conference in court. If the court accepts the proposed agreement, then it will proceed with a final plea hearing before trial.

At this plea hearing, the judge may have the prosecutor state the agreement on the record in open court. The court will record the hearing either through the presence of a court reporter or otherwise, depending on local court rules. The judge will inquire of the defendant and defense counsel if the prosecutor has correctly stated the agreement and whether they do, in fact, agree. Before taking the change in plea to guilty or no contest, the judge will go over it with the defendant in open court. 

To accept a guilty plea, the court will ask the defendant to give up or waive the following constitutional rights:

  • The right to counsel, including the right to have the court appoint an attorney to represent you at trial at no expense if you cannot afford to hire one yourself
  • The right to have a public and speedy trial before a jury or a trial to the court when the law so permits
  • The right to subpoena witnesses at trial at no expense to you and to compel them to appear
  • The right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses called against you
  • The right to require the State to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction
  • The right to remain silent and not be compelled to be a witness against yourself
  • The right to appeal any criminal conviction

The judge must be convinced that the defendant is making a knowing and voluntary waiver of their rights. The defendant must make the plea of their own free will. Their counsel can't make this decision for their client but can advise.

Considering a Plea Hearing in Your Case? Talk With an Attorney

If you're thinking about how to plead in a criminal case, consider speaking with a skilled attorney before making any decisions. If you're facing criminal charges and will be entering a plea soon, an attorney can go over your rights and discuss any possible defenses. If you need time to meet with an attorney, consider asking the court for a continuance. You can reach a criminal defense lawyer in your area today.

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