If you are charged with a crime in Missouri, you’ll be asked to enter a plea: guilty, not guilty, or “no contest.” But before you enter any plea, you will need to have the guidance and sound legal advice that a Jefferson County criminal defense attorney will provide.
There’s no question about the meaning of the “guilty” and “not guilty” options. A guilty plea means that you are confessing to the crime you are charged with, and you are willing to accept the sentence handed down by the court.
What Happens When Defendants Plead Not Guilty?
A not guilty plea means that you are denying the charge against you and claiming innocence. If the charge cannot be dropped by the prosecutor or dismissed by the judge, a not guilty plea usually means that your case will go to trial and be heard by a jury.
But what does it mean if a defendant pleads no contest? And what are the consequences of a no contest plea? If you’ll continue reading, you’ll learn the meaning of a no contest plea, and you’ll also learn more about your rights if you are charged with a crime in the State of Missouri.
What is an Arraignment?
When you face a criminal charge, the first courtroom hearing in the case is called an arraignment. At an arraignment, a defendant enters a guilty, not guilty, or no contest plea. You must have a defense attorney’s legal advice before you enter a courtroom for your arraignment.
In most circumstances, a criminal defense attorney would advise you against entering a guilty plea at your arraignment. You might enter a guilty plea later to a lesser charge as part of a plea bargain agreement, but the plea at an arraignment should almost always be not guilty.
What is a Plea Bargain?
When the evidence that you are guilty of a crime is conclusive and a conviction is certain, your lawyer may negotiate a plea “deal” with the prosecutor. In a typical plea deal, the original charge is reduced to a less serious charge if you agree to plead guilty (or no contest) to the lesser charge.
Usually, a defense lawyer will recommend a guilty plea only after a plea bargain has been negotiated. In most cases, at least at the start of the case, a Missouri criminal defense lawyer will tell a client that he or she should plead not guilty.
Why is Pleading Not Guilty Usually the Best Option?
Not guilty is usually the best plea that can be entered by a defendant who is facing a criminal charge. Even if you are in fact guilty of the charge, or believe that you are guilty, there are several good reasons to plead not guilty, at least at the beginning of your case.
A not guilty plea gives your attorney time to examine the evidence, speak with the witnesses, and investigate the charge against you. If you’re actually guilty, a not guilty plea also gives your defense attorney time to negotiate a favorable plea deal on your behalf.
And after your defense attorney has reviewed the prosecution’s case against you, if the evidence is insufficient to ensure a conviction, your attorney can seek to have the charged dropped, dismissed, or brought to trial.
A criminal defendant gains a number of advantages by not rushing to plead guilty or no contest, and each of those advantages should be carefully considered in consultation with a criminal defense attorney.
What is a No Contest Plea?
When a criminal defendant enters a plea of no contest or “nolo contendere” (a Latin phrase meaning “I do not wish to contest”) that defendant is neither confessing to a criminal charge nor denying it.
For most purposes, a no contest plea has the same legal effect as a guilty plea. It means that a defendant will be convicted, a sentence will be handed down, and the defendant will have a criminal record.
What Does a Defendant Gain by Pleading No Contest?
What then is the benefit of pleading no contest to a criminal charge in the State of Missouri? For most defendants, pleading no contest is the way to avoid an admission of guilt, even when the evidence of guilt is persuasive and the defendant would be convicted at a trial.
Avoiding an admission of guilt is important for defendants who may face civil lawsuits from their victims. Let’s say that a defendant has been charged with first-degree assault after causing serious physical injuries to his or her victim.
That victim may have substantial long-term medical needs that may include multiple surgeries and a lengthy period of therapy and rehabilitation. If a crime victim was permanently disabled, the victim may require medical care for the rest of his or her life.
Additionally, if a crime victim cannot work, either temporarily or permanently, his or her lost wages may be substantial. At a criminal trial, even if the defendant is convicted, it doesn’t mean that the victim will be reimbursed for medical expenses or lost earnings.
Crime Victims Can Sue Their Assailants in Civil Court
In such cases, the crime victim is likely to file a personal injury lawsuit and sue the defendant for monetary compensation to cover medical bills, lost wages, personal pain and suffering, and other related losses and damages.
Because a guilty plea constitutes a defendant’s admission of guilt, that admission may be considered conclusive evidence if the victim files a civil personal injury claim. The defendant will be found liable in civil court and ordered to pay a substantial sum to the victim.
But by pleading no contest, even though it means a conviction for the defendant, that defendant denies his or her victim what would be considered conclusive evidence in a personal injury trial – the defendant’s own admission of guilt.
When Should a Defendant Insist on a Jury Trial?
Of course, if you are not guilty of the crime that you are accused of, you should not plead guilty or no contest, and you should not agree to any plea deal. You have the right to a jury trial, and if the charge against you cannot be dropped or dismissed, you should insist on that right.
When a criminal defendant is genuinely innocent, it’s right that he or she should plead not guilty. If that is your situation, a Jefferson County criminal defense attorney will investigate the charge against you, protect your rights, and explain to jurors why they should find you not guilty.
If you’re charged with any crime in this state, contacting the right criminal defense attorney is the first step you must take, and you must do it promptly. Adhere to your attorney’s advice, and he or she will bring your case to its best possible outcome.