In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone in a criminal case under common law using the adversarial system. Colloquially, a plea has come to mean the assertion by a defendant at arraignment, or otherwise in response to a criminal charge, whether that person pleaded or pled guilty, not guilty, nolo contendere (a.k.a. no contest), no case to answer (in the United Kingdom), or Alford plea (in the United States).

The concept of the plea is one of the significant differences between criminal procedure under common law and procedure under the civil law system. Under common law, a defendant who pleads guilty is automatically convicted, and the remainder of the trial is used to determine the sentence. This produces a system known as plea bargaining, in which defendants may plead guilty in exchange for a more lenient punishment. In civil law jurisdictions, a confession by the defendant is treated like any other piece of evidence. A full confession does not prevent a full trial or relieve the prosecutor from presenting a case to the court.

Types of pleaEdit

The most common types of plea are "guilty" and "not guilty".

Pleading guilty typically results in a more lenient punishment for the defendant; it is thus a type of mitigating factor in sentencing.[1] In a plea bargain, a defendant makes a deal with the prosecution or court to plead guilty in exchange for a more lenient punishment, or for related charges against them to be dropped. A "blind plea" is a guilty plea entered with no plea agreement in place.[2] Plea bargains are particularly common in the United States.[3] Other countries use a more limited form of plea bargaining. In the United Kingdom and Germany, guidelines state that only the timing of the guilty plea can affect the reduction in the punishment, with an earlier plea resulting in a greater reduction.

In the United States, a nolo contendere (no contest) plea is when the defendant submits a plea that neither admits nor denies the offense. It has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea because the trial avoids determining the defendant's guilt.

Peremptory pleasEdit

These pleas claim that a case cannot proceed for some reason. They are so-called because, rather than being an answer to the question of guilt or innocence, they are a claim that the matter of guilt or innocence should not be considered.

They are:

  • autrefois convict (or autrefois acquit) – where under the doctrine of double jeopardy, the accused has been previously convicted or acquitted of the same charge and hence cannot be tried again.
  • plea of pardon – where the accused has been pardoned for the offense.

No plea enteredEdit

A defendant who refuses to enter a plea is usually interpreted as giving a plea of not guilty; the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, for instance, state, "If a defendant refuses to enter a plea or if a defendant organization fails to appear, the court must enter a plea of not guilty."[4] Similarly, if a defendant attempts to enter an unorthodox plea (a "creative plea"), this will usually be interpreted as a plea of not guilty.[5] One example of this was a defendant accused of a crime committed while protesting a nuclear power plant, who gave his plea as "I plead for the beauty that surrounds us".[6]

Until 1772, English law stated that the trial was delayed if a defendant refused to plead guilty or not guilty. Some of these defendants were subjected to peine forte et dure (torture by pressing) until they entered a plea, although some died. The last recorded instance of this was in 1741. This method of torture was only used once in the history of the United States. Giles Corey refused to enter a plea in response to being accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials and was pressed to death in 1692.

United StatesEdit

"Voluntary and intelligent"Edit

A defendant who enters a plea of guilty must do so, in the phraseology of a 1938 United States Supreme Court case, Johnson v. Zerbst, "knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently". The burden is on the prosecution to prove that all waivers of the defendant's rights complied with due process standards. Accordingly, in cases of all but the most minor offenses, the court or the prosecution (depending upon local custom and the presiding judge's preference) will engage in a plea colloquy wherein they ask the defendant a series of rote questions about the defendant's knowledge of his rights and the voluntariness of the plea. Typically the hearing on the guilty plea is transcribed by a court reporter, and the transcript is made a part of the permanent record of the case to preserve the conviction's validity from being challenged at some future time. "Intelligent" has been described as "an elusive term, meaning that the defendant knows his rights, the nature of the charge to which he is pleading, and the consequences of his plea."[7] "Voluntary" has been described as also "an elusive term which has come to mean not induced by 'improper' inducements, such as bribing or physical violence, but not including the inducements normally associated with charge and sentence bargaining (except for inducements involving 'overcharging' by prosecutors)."[8] Empirical research has demonstrated that violent conditions in jails during pretrial detention of people who are legally innocent do improperly induce or coerce guilty pleas,[9] but this has not constitutionally invalidated the pleas under current Supreme Court precedent.

Virtually all jurisdictions hold that defense counsel need not discuss with defendants the collateral consequences of pleading guilty, such as consecutive sentencing or even treatment as an aggravating circumstance in an ongoing capital prosecution.[10] However, the Supreme Court recognized an important exception in Padilla v. Kentucky (2010), in which the Court held that defense counsel is obligated to inform defendants of the potential immigration consequences of a guilty plea. Thus a defendant who is not advised of immigration consequences may have an ineffective assistance of counsel argument.

In the U.S. federal system, the court must also satisfy itself that there is a factual basis for the guilty plea.[4] However, this safeguard may not be very effective because the parties, having reached a plea agreement, may be reluctant to reveal any information that could disturb the agreement. When a plea agreement has been made, the judge's factual basis inquiry is usually perfunctory, and the standard for finding that the plea is factually based is very low.[11]

Special pleasEdit

Other special pleas used in criminal cases include the plea of mental incompetence, challenging the jurisdiction of the court over the defendant's person, the plea in bar, attacking the jurisdiction of the court over the crime charged, and the plea in abatement, which is used to address procedural errors in bringing the charges against the defendant, not apparent on the "face" of the indictment or other charging instrument. Special pleas in federal criminal cases have been abolished, and defenses formerly raised by special pleas are now raised by motion to dismiss.

A conditional plea is one where the defendant pleads guilty to the offense but expressly reserves the right to appeal certain aspects of the charges (for example, that the evidence was illegally obtained).

In United States v. Binion, malingering or feigning illness during a competency evaluation was held to be obstruction of justice and led to an enhanced sentence. Although the defendant had pleaded guilty, he was not awarded a reduction in sentence because the feigned illness was considered to mean that he was not accepting responsibility for his illegal behavior.[12]

United KingdomEdit

"unambiguous plea"Edit

A defendant who enters a plea of guilty must do so unequivocally. A guilty plea which is "imperfect, unfinished or otherwise ambiguous"[13] will not legitimate and should the court proceed to sentence on such a plea, there exist grounds for ordering a retrial or quashing the conviction.

In R v Atkinson,[14] the Court of Appeal held that, where a defendant entered a plea of 'Guilty, but i intended to defend myself' this could be held to be an unequivocal plea where the judge had clarified any ambiguity before accepting the plea.

Special pleasEdit

Three special pleas (though not in the strictest sense of the word) exists in the criminal courts of England and Wales:

Demurrer: Which is an "objection to the form or substance of the indictment".[15] It is essentially no different than a motion to quash the indictment, however, it continues to exist in law. Unlike standard pleas, this must be entered in writing in advance of the arraignment.

Plea to jurisdiction:[16] Can be entered where the defendant believes the Crown Court does not have the power to hear the case before it, such a plea is usually entered where the offence being charged is summary only. Similarly to Demurrer, this plea must be entered in writing in advance.

Pardon: "It may be relied on where a pardon has been granted by the Crown on the advice of the Home Secretary in exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. It must be pleaded at the first opportunity (i.e. before arraignment if the pardon has by then been granted). In modern times, the plea has become obsolete."[16]

Plea in mitigationEdit

A plea in mitigation is used during criminal law proceedings in many Commonwealth countries. It typically involves a lawyer telling a judge of extenuating circumstances that could result in a lesser sentence for an offender.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Sentencing Council".
  2. ^ Etienne, Margareth (Summer 2005). "The Ethics of Cause Lawyering: An Empirical Examination of Criminal Defense Lawyers as Cause Lawyers". The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 95 (4): 1195–1260. JSTOR 3491403.
  3. ^ Alschuler, Albert W. (1979). "Plea Bargaining and Its History". Colum. L. Rev. 79 (1): 1–43. doi:10.2307/1122051. JSTOR 1122051.
  4. ^ a b "Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure: Rule 11. Pleas". Cornell Law School.
  5. ^ National Lawyers Guild, LA Chapter, Questions and Answers about Civil Disobedience and the Legal Process (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-27
  6. ^ Hurst, John (August 10, 1978), "A-plant protestors being freed", Los Angeles Times
  7. ^ McDonald, William F. (1986–1987), Judicial Supervision of the Guilty Plea Process: A Study of Six Jurisdictions, vol. 70, Judicature, p. 203
  8. ^ McDonald, William F. (1986–1987), Judicial Supervision of the Guilty Plea Process: A Study of Six Jurisdictions, vol. 70, Judicature, p. 203
  9. ^ Thomas, C., Cadoff, B., Wolff, K. T., & Chauhan, P. (2022), "How do the consequences of pretrial detention on guilty pleas and carceral sentences vary between misdemeanor and felony cases?", Journal of Criminal Justice, 82 (4): 102008, doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2022.102008, S2CID 253991546{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Chin, Gabriel J.; Holmes, Richard W. Jr. (2001–2002), "Effective Assistance of Counsel and the Consequences of Guilty Pleas", Cornell Law Review, Cornell L. Rev., 87: 697
  11. ^ Turner, Jenia Iontcheva (Winter 2006), Judicial Participation in Plea Negotiations: A Comparative View, vol. 54, The American Journal of Comparative Law, pp. 199–267
  12. ^ Darani, Shaheen (January 2006). "Behavior of the Defendant in a Competency-to-Stand-Trial Evaluation Becomes an Issue in Sentencing". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online. Journal of the American Psychiatric Association. 34 (1): 126–128. Retrieved 2007-10-10.
  13. ^ R v Ingleson [1915] 1 KB 512
  14. ^ R v Atkinson [2021] EWCA Crim 153
  15. ^ R v Inner London Quarter Sessions Ex p/ Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [1970] 2 QB 80
  16. ^ a b BLACKSTONE'S CRIMINAL PRACTICE 2023. [S.l.]: OXFORD UNIV PRESS US. 2023. pp. D12.52. ISBN 978-0-19-287029-2. OCLC 1348477920.
  17. ^ "Sentencing - Overview". The Crown Prosecution Service. Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 23 March 2019.