Should I Plead Guilty or Not Guilty at My First Court Appearance?

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, you’re likely urgently seeking answers on what to do and not to do when the day of your first court appearance arrives (the “arraignment”). One of the earliest questions our clients often ask is whether they should plead guilty or not guilty at this appearance. The answer is—it depends.

Understanding the law and having a history of practice in both the geographical region and a specific area of law are crucial components that can help determine the best steps to take in your case.Every case is different, in both charges and circumstances. We understand that most people accused of a crime don’t have the ability, skill or knowledge necessary to completely understanding all the implications and possible outcomes of their plea in court. The criminal court rules of South Carolina are available to the public, but understanding and interpreting them for the best outcome of your case is quite another matter.

In this blog, we give an overview of the different types of pleas and under what circumstances you might enter those pleas in court.

TYPES OF PLEAS

First off, in this blog we are focusing on criminal court cases. Civil court is different from criminal court. In a civil court, your response to a complaint is called an “answer” — you do not enter a plea.

A plea is the starting point in a criminal case, and a defendant’s plea may change down the road in longer and more complicated cases, if the circumstances change. Under the law, you have the presumption of innocence until you are proven to be guilty. Your accuser(s) must prove your guilt, called the “burden of proof.” If the state can prove that only some, but not all, of the charges against you are true, you cannot be found guilty.

Defendants have the option to plead guilty, meaning they agree with the charges brought against them, or not guilty, meaning that they disagree with the charges and are claiming not to have committed the crime. Defendants may also end up pleading “no contest.” This is essentially saying you aren’t stating that you are not guilty, but neither are you saying you will accept a guilty plea. It’s a statement of accepting the prosecutor’s sentence, and that you won’t contest it. This is often done in acceptance of a lesser charge, in a deal negotiated between the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney. Finally, you may also plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.” This is a complex plea and should not be entered into without the counsel and advice of an attorney.

Pleas are an “all or nothing” type of statement. Though they may, in theory, be changed at any time before a judge enters a final judgment on your case, it can prove difficult to change your plea once it is entered. You should not enter a plea that you do not accept or understand. For example, no matter what an attorney recommends or advises you, you always have the right to plead as you, the defendant, see fit.

And remember, if you cannot afford an attorney, you still must enter a plea; you may then ask the court to appoint a defense attorney for you. This person is called a “public defender” and will handle your case in the event you cannot seek counsel from a specific attorney you know and trust.

After you enter a plea, your case will be scheduled for further proceedings, such as a trial.

MISDEMEANOR OR FELONY?

Misdemeanors are less serious offenses than felony charges, and carry a lesser potential punishment, with a maximum period of incarceration of three or as many as 10 years, depending on the charge. Felonies are much more serious charges, involving major crimes such as murder, and may carry prison terms anywhere from five years to life in prison, or even death. South Carolina remains a state where the death penalty is a possibility for the most serious of crimes. There was previously a ban on death penalty cases, but that was lifted in 1985.

WHY WOULD ANYONE PLEAD GUILTY?

In many cases, a plea of not guilty may mean you are retained until a trial, whereas a plea of guilty means you may be released immediately. This is a complex and nuanced negotiation that can take place between prosecutors and defendants and is another reason why immediately seeking experienced counsel is important. In certain cases, you may be better off returning to your regular life right away, and the only way that can happen is if you enter a guilty plea.

Alternately, in a negotiation, you may agree to plead guilty to a lesser crime with fewer, less serious consequences so you can get on with your life relatively quickly, whereas a not guilty plea would result in a lengthy and potentially costly trial, taking you away from your regular life for an unknown period of time.

There’s no doubt the circumstances are complicated and can vary widely from case to case, depending on the particular circumstances of the crime.

CONCLUSION

If you are charged with a criminal offense, contacting an experienced and compassionate lawyer who will fight for your rights should be your very first step. A dedicated lawyer can help you understand the benefits and risks inherent in different plea options available to you, and can represent your interests in court with an authoritative voice. The Leventis law firm is experienced in handling all manner of criminal charges in South Carolina, and will bring that experience to bear in a passionate fight for your rights.