Pleading: A One-Way Ticket to Ride

There are no “do-overs” usually in criminal court when a defendant “freely,” “voluntarily,” and “intelligently” enters a guilty plea with the “assistance” of “competent counsel.” Once the plea is entered, accepted by the court, and the defendant is sentenced- – the defendant must live with the whole ordeal (even if the defendant is unsatisfied for whatever reason). There is no redo or rework or second chance, and the plea is final in most respects.[i] In other words, you live with the results (even if you do not like them or can show why the whole thing is flawed).

On the one hand, trial courts are not allowed to accept pleas of defendants who have been threatened or coerced, tricked, or cajoled into entering a plea. Courts will reject those pleas, but if the person admits their guilt under oath and understands what they are doing while pleading, then its a good plea. “Freely,” “voluntarily,” and “intelligently” are the buzz words that the courts require to ensure a plea is properly accepted in a court. If the plea meets these requirements, it usually stands and is final. That means – – No refunds. No store credit. No exchanges. Nope.

Now, unless there is some recognized constitutional infirmity, courts will usually not unwind a guilty plea (regardless of whether the defendant is innocent) if the plea is “freely,” “voluntarily,” and “intelligently” entered.[ii] Under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, the United States Supreme Court has absolutely required that court make this determination to ensure the plea is constitutionally acceptable. Trial courts do this by conducting a plea colloquy with the defendant to ensure that the defendant understands what he/she is doing and the rights that he/she is giving up by pleading. The plea colloquy may seem like a formality, but it is wielded like a nasty cudgel against a defendant who later complains that he/she did not know what they were doing when they plead guilty.

Once a defendant pleads guilty (or no contest) the defendant almost certainly forfeits the right to contest the issue of their factual innocence. In other words, when a defendant pleads guilty, they admit their guilt for all time (regardless of whether they were guilty or not and the plea was that of convenience). At this point, the defendant is considered guilty because he/she admitted to the offense.

The difference between a guilty verdict and admission of guilt is the backbone of our legal institution and its structure. Our constitutions guarantee a jury trial but not a plea bargain (even though most cases resolve with an entered plea). While there are many reasons to plead, contesting one’s innocence is not one of those reasons. The only way to test the evidence and maintain one’s innocence is to empanel a jury and put the government to its burden. In this way, regardless of the outcome, the defendant can forever maintain a claim of innocence.[iii]

For this reason, if you are innocent and/or have evidence to demonstrate your innocence, then DO NOT PLEAD GUILTY. If your attorney is pressuring you to plead, then seek a second opinion. Courts are absolutely required to inform you about the maximum penalties associated with the offense should you go to trial and be found guilty. On the other hand, the decision to accept a plea or to make the government prove its case IS 100 % UP TO YOU.

Make no mistake, the decision to proceed and go to trial is a terrifying, white knuckle decision, that will scare the bejesus out of you – – but if you are innocent then you have to make the following decision: (a) accept a plea offer, plead guilty, and live with the consequences, (b) plead open with no agreement and see where the chips land, or (c) put your freedom on the line and make the government prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And, if your belief in your attorney is putting a damper on this decision, then get yourself a new attorney. This is your life.

I cannot stress this enough. While there are some extremely difficult legal mechanisms like motions to withdraw plea and post-conviction motions that might be useful in a few rare cases, the vast majority of pleas are final. All the money in the world usually cannot undo these pleas unless certain factual criteria are met (and these factual criteria are usually not met). So … the moral of the story can be summed up like this – – IF YOU PLEAD GUILTY MAKE SURE THAT IS WHAT YOU WANT TO DO… if you don’t, then make the government prove its case against you.

If you or a loved one is currently facing criminal charges, then make sure that the attorney explains everything to you in such a way that you understand the difficult decisions you may be making as you make your way through the criminal justice system. And if you are not getting the answers you can understand, then contact another attorney.

Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a three-time Board-Certified criminal trial attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog @candelalawfirm @thetrialdog

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THE CHOICE OF ATTORNEY MATTERS. IN A CLOSE CASE, YOU WANT EVERY ADVANTAGE YOU CAN GET. YOU WANT THE BEST YOU CAN AFFORD. If you are looking for representation in a criminal matter, criminal appeal (either state or federal) or estate planning, we believe we can help you. Please contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your case.

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No. 21-016 You Can’t Go Back


[i] Obviously, a defendant can directly appeal the “judgment and sentence” under the rules, but if the sentence is legal and constitutional, the appeal is meritless. Appeals are far more complicated topic and not really delved into in this blog.

[ii] There are a couple difficult and arduous methods for attempting to undue a plea. See Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.170(l) and 3.850.

[iii] By pleading, a defendant gives up their right to continue to maintain their innocence for the most part. On the other hand, when a defendant goes to trial and is found guilty, the defendant can maintain his/her innocence throughout the process. This may not seem like an important distinction, but it is if an “actual innocence” claim surface throughout the appellate process. But, if the defendant entered a guilty plea, the law takes a quite different approach to the conviction. While both scenarios are difficult to prevail in, the pleading defendant’s road is far more difficult than the defendant that went to trial.

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