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Pleading Guilty in a Criminal Case Update

The overwhelming majority of criminal cases – typically over 90% – are resolved by a plea of guilty.  An Annual Report of the Criminal Court of the City of New York reported that nearly 150,000 guilty pleas were accepted in the Criminal Court in 2008. Guilty pleas are a way of quickly disposing of cases to mutual benefit – the Government, State or Commonwealth saves its time and resources for other matters while the accused Defendant often derives a lesser level of crime or potential sentence.  In many state courts, negotiating and effectuating dispositions by guilty plea – “plea bargaining” as it is sometimes called – comprises a substantial portion of what goes on.  For example, someone charged with a felony drug possession may be offered a plea to a misdemeanor drug offense with no jail time rather than risking a felony conviction if convicted after a trial on the felony.  Or someone might be offered a probationary sentence on a drunk driving charge rather than risking jail or prison if convicted at trial.

Recently, an appellate court in New York issued a cautionary reminder to judges who accept guilty pleas in Criminal Court.  The Appellate Division, First Department, decided the case of People v. Vickers, in which a 20-year-old with no prior criminal record pleaded guilty to loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.  In accepting her guilty plea, the judge asked only whether it was what she wanted to do and whether anyone had forced her.  She appealed, arguing that her plea should be vacated for failure to fully advise her.  The appellate court agreed with her, holding that a judge has a duty to ensure that a criminal defendant has a full understanding of a guilty plea and its consequences, given the age, experience and background of the accused.  This means that a person must be generally advised about what rights are being waived when a guilty plea is entered, and that there’s a basis to believe that the person actually is guilty.  The appellate court found that Ms. Vickers’ guilty plea was so abbreviated as to be “woefully deficient” in establishing that she knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily waived her rights and pleaded guilty to the charge.

The Vickers case emphasizes that if you are charged with a crime, the choice of whether or not to plead guilty is a critical decision that must be made carefully.  Negotiating an agreeable resolution may be in your best interests – or it may be a poor choice under its specific terms or under all the circumstances.  In every case, it involves sacrificing or “waiving” various Constitutional Rights, including the right to a trial.  What rights are you sacrificing?  What defenses are you giving up?  Does the prosecution have sufficient evidence against you?  What consequences will a guilty plea have on your future?  You should fully discuss all these questions and more with a knowledgeable defense attorney … before you face a judge to enter a guilty plea.  Feel free to contact the lawyers at Collins, McDonald & Gann should you ever need legal advice on a criminal case for yourself or a loved one.  You can reach us at 516-294-0300.

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