Guilty or Not Guilty: How Do You Plead?

Ever wondered why a criminal defendant would plead not guilty despite seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary?

Well….you’re about to find out (if you keep reading that is).

Let’s take this step by step, shall we?

First off, when a person is accused of committing a crime the law says that they’ve got to be taken in front of a judge, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, as soon as possible.  This is because the court has to read them their charges and make sure, first and foremost, that they understand their charges. Then, and only then, will the court take the first plea.

I’ve italicized the word first in the preceding paragraph because it requires a bit of explanation.

See, when a person is arrested and charged with a crime, 9 times out of 10 their first court appearance will be in a General Sessions Court.  General Sessions Courts are “not of record.”

What in the world does “not of record” mean?  Great question.

Rather than go through the whole detailed explanation of what that means, I’m just going to simplify it. What you need to know about General Sessions courts is this….a court of General Sessions cannot take guilty pleas on felony charges.

This means that if a person is charged with a felony (which is a crime that carries a sentence of a year or more in jail/prison), even if he or she wanted to plead guilty, if they’re in front of a General Sessions judge, they can’t.

General Sessions courts can only take pleas on misdemeanors.  That’s it.  When it comes to felonies, the courts jurisdiction stops with the preliminary hearing.

What in the world is a “preliminary hearing?” Another great question.

A preliminary hearing is a hearing wherein the court determines if there is enough evidence or probable cause to send the case to the grand jury.  The grand jury will then determine if there is enough evidence or probable cause to send the case to trial.

If the grand jury decides that there is enough evidence or probable cause, the case will go to Circuit Court, which is a court “of record.”  In Circuit Court the defendant will have the opportunity to either plead not guilty and go to trial or plead guilty and enter into a settlement with the state (see why I italicized “first” earlier).

So, when you’re watching the news and the story is all about a defendant entering a not guilty plea despite a world of evidence to the contrary, that’s why.  Even if they wanted to, they can’t. Only circuit courts can take pleas on felonies.

But that’s not the only reason criminal defendants, at least earlier on, enter not guilty pleas.

In order for a guilty plea to be valid it has to be entered into knowingly, freely, and voluntarily. For purposes of this post, the most important of those three words is knowingly.

Take it from me, a criminal defense attorney at heart, the last you want to do is allow your client to enter into a guilty plea without first discussing all possible defenses.  Just trust me on that.

But in order to effectively discuss any defenses, you have to know ALL the facts.  This means that the you have to be able to know what proof the state would introduce at trial. In order to know what the state has on a particular defendant, a process called “discovery” must first be conducted.

The discovery process is exactly like it sounds. Criminal defendants are afforded an opportunity to discovery everything the state has on them.  This includes witness statements, photographs, criminal histories, etc.  Anything the state has, they have to turn it over to the defendant.

Only after the discovery process has been conducted can a defendant validly enter a plea of guilty, at least on a felony charge.

So there you have it.  That’s the quick version of why many, if not most, criminal defendants charged with a felony enter a plea of not guilty.

Good Legal Health.


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