Step 1: Speak to a lawyer before you plead guilty. This could have lasting consequences for the rest of your life.
It is always the decision of the accused person whether or not he or she wants to plead guilty. You should have a lawyer assist you in understanding the various outcomes associated with pleading guilty or not pleading guilty at any given time. But based on that legal knowledge, every accused person needs to make his or her own decision.
If you do choose to plead guilty, what are the basic legal principles and procedures you need to understand?
Admitting the facts of guilty plea
First of all, you need to understand what it means to plead guilty. It means you are accepting certain facts as being true; you are admitting that certain events did indeed happen. Your lawyer will often take a great deal of time negotiating with the Crown attorney as to the exact facts to which you will be admitting. This is very important for several reasons: firstly, you do not want to admit to facts that are not true, nor should you. Secondly, there may be legal consequences to these admissions. For example, there may be family law or civil law issues arising from these admissions. Lastly, the facts may affect what sentence the judge imposes.
Your lawyer will keep a close eye on these issues. The most important thing for you to understand is that in pleading guilty you must accept facts that make out the essential elements of the offence. It is not possible to say, for example, that you want to plead guilty to assault but you never actually touched the complainant. The judge will not accept your guilty plea. And in all likelihood, if you are not willing to admit the essential elements of the offence, the judge is quite right: you should not be pleading guilty.
The Implications of a guilty plea
Next, you need to understand the ramifications of pleading guilty. When you plead guilty you are giving up your right to trial. The point of the trial is to determine whether the essential elements of the offence can be proven – both that the acts actually happened and that you possessed the necessary mental state to make those acts illegal. In pleading guilty you are admitting those elements without making the Crown prove them all beyond a reasonable doubt. Guilty pleas cannot be appealed. You cannot decide upon sentencing that you want to invoke your right to trial: you give up that right forever when you plead guilty.
Sentencing: Joint Positions and Open Positions on guilty pleas
Usually when faced with the decision as to whether or not to plead guilty to an offence, the likely sentence will play a large factor. Rarely will an accused person plead guilty to all the offences with which they are charged and agree to a sentencing position similar to that they would get upon a finding of guilt after trial. That is to say, accused persons usually get a “deal” when they plead guilty because they are – for their part – giving up their right to trial. A good defence lawyer will not only give the client their assessment as to the strength of the defence case, but also a sense of what sort of sentence the client might get upon a finding of guilt after trial. If the client wants to plead guilty or at least explore that option, the lawyer then discusses with the Crown their relative positions.
First the opposing lawyers must agree to what charges the accused person will be pleading guilty. Once that is determined, the defence lawyer and the Crown try to agree upon a sentencing position. If they can agree, the plea will be a “joint position plea”. If the two lawyers cannot agree, you may still plead guilty but each lawyer will be asking the judge to impose a different sentence. This is known as an “open position” plea.
Whether joint or open, you must understand that the person who decides your sentence will be the judge who accepts your guilty plea and then issues a finding of guilt. Now, if there is a joint position put forth by the lawyers, the judge is required to give that position a great deal of deference. They can only impose a sentence other than the one being proposed if they believe the proposed position would “bring the administration of justice into disrepute”. That is to say, the judge is unlikely to impose an unexpected sentence. But they may. Your lawyer can explain to you more about what this means. If the plea is an “open position” plea, the judge is likely to agree with the sentencing suggestion of either your lawyer or that of the Crown, or choose a sentence in between. But they are not required to do so and may impose a harsher or lighter sentence than either lawyer is even asking for.
Sentencing submissions are just another important job your lawyer does as part of a plea.
Your Rights, Your Decision, Your Plea
It is very important to understand that nothing in this blog can replace legal advice. You should call a lawyer – whether at our firm or another, and make sure you get the best result possible.
Whether or not to plead guilty is not a decision that should be taken lightly. The right to trial is a basic pillar of our justice system; waiving that right is no trivial matter. Hopefully this blog entry helps you understand the basics of how the process works. Know your rights and work with your lawyer to get the best result possible. A good lawyer will do all the things I have mentioned in pursuit of getting you the best result. But the one thing no good lawyer will do is try to make your decision for you: the decision to plead guilty is a significant one that only you yourself can make. Just make sure it is an informed decision.
If you would like to discuss any of these issues further, or have been charged with a crime, feel free to call the number here on the website.
Know your rights and stand up for them.