If you have been thinking about making a guilty plea for a criminal charge the following may be one of the most important things you ever read.
One of the most frustrating things for me as a criminal defense attorney is to watch someone appear at their first court appearance and plead guilty as charged without the assistance of a lawyer. Time and time again, I have witnessed decisions being made by individuals who don’t understand the long term consequences of a guilty plea. Truth be told, there are actually many other options that might have been available to them. For many of these individuals, they think that “just paying the fine” is the easy way out of their criminal charge. While it may be the “easy” way at first glance, it is usually far from the best way.
Here are some examples of how pleading guilty can have a powerful negative impact on people’s lives:
I have seen college students plead guilty to alcohol offenses, not knowing that their scholarships and even ability to attend college may be lost.
I have seen scared people pleading guilty to driving offense, not knowing the dramatic impact their plea will have on their driver’s license.
I have seen people plead guilty to high court offenses thinking they got a “deal” when they don’t know that their job, their ability to own certain property, even their ability to travel will be lost.
You get the picture.
When a person goes to court without a lawyer at their side, they may not realize just how dramatically the odds are stacked against them. Police officers and prosecutors are trained to know the system and they are not on the side of the defendant. The judge is a neutral party; a judge can’t advise someone they are making a bad decision and is not under any obligation to let a defendant know about options they may have.
There is no such thing as “guilty with an explanation”, a phrase I hear all too often when watching an unrepresented person enter a plea. By pleading guilty, you are waiving your rights and will be convicted! Once you plead guilty, they turn the power over to the judge to determine punishment, regardless of what explanation might be offered. Sometimes the “explanation” makes matters much worse! As I have watched this happen, I am forced to grit my teeth and wish that the individual had taken the time to consult an attorney, rather than take the “easy” route.
As an experienced criminal defense attorney, I have found that a careful review of charges will place an accused person in a much better position. An attorney who has experience in the criminal justice system will know the routes through the maze of that system. That attorney will be able to analyze a case for technical flaws or possible defenses. That attorney will be able to tell you whether the prosecutor can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (because you should never have to prove your innocence!) Most of all, an experienced attorney will be able to make sure you know ALL of the consequences of a plea, beyond what happens while at court.
Hiring an attorney does not mean that someone who is accused won’t enter a guilty plea. Hiring a lawyer who has worked extensively in the criminal justice system, however, means that every option will be explored and that all possible outcomes will be considered. Only after an accused person has all of this information should they even consider entering a plea.
Gary Lemel has served as a criminal lawyer to citizens of York County and South Carolina since 1996.