When you are placed under arrest and charged with a criminal offense in Texas, you will be asked at your first court appearance to enter a plea: not guilty, guilty, or “no contest.” Before you enter your plea, you should have the advice and guidance that a San Marcos criminal defense lawyer provides.
Everyone knows that if you’re charged with a crime and you plead “not guilty,” you are declaring your innocence, whereas a “guilty” plea is a confession of guilt. But what does a “no contest” plea mean? Does pleading no contest provide any advantages to a criminal defendant?
If you’ll keep reading, these questions will be answered in this brief discussion of plea bargains and no contest pleas in Texas. You will also learn where to obtain the legal advice and services that you’ll need before you enter any plea to criminal charges in or near the San Marcos area.
What Does a “Not Guilty” or “Guilty” Plea Accomplish?
If you have been charged with a crime, you will be asked to enter a plea at your arraignment (your first court appearance), and if your plea is “not guilty,” your case will be scheduled for a jury trial.
When a defendant pleads not guilty to a criminal charge, that defendant is claiming that he or she is innocent of the charge. If the charge against you is not quickly dropped by the prosecution or dismissed by the court, pleading not guilty probably means that your case will go to trial.
A guilty plea, however, is a defendant’s formal confession of guilt. A guilty plea (or a no contest plea) means that the defendant is automatically convicted, no trial needs to be conducted, and all that remains of the legal process is for the defendant to be sentenced.
What Does Pleading “No Contest” Accomplish?
A no contest plea lets a defendant avoid admitting guilt, but otherwise, a plea of no contest is treated as a guilty plea and has exactly the same effect as a guilty plea, with only one exception.
A no contest plea is an option for a defendant who caused substantial property damage or serious personal injuries.
In these cases, the crime victim may – separately, in the civil courts – file a personal injury or property damage lawsuit against the defendant to recover compensation for medical expenses, lost income, personal suffering and pain, property damages, and other related losses.
A guilty plea in a criminal proceeding may be used by a crime victim in a civil lawsuit as evidence of the defendant’s liability, but a no contest plea cannot be used as evidence in a civil case. It’s that simple, and it’s the only practical reason for a defendant to plead no contest to a criminal charge in Texas.
Does a Court Have to Accept Your Plea?
A Texas criminal court does not have to accept a defendant’s no contest plea. In fact, no contest pleas are not allowed in Texas felony cases or in other cases where a defendant may face a personal injury or property damage lawsuit seeking substantial compensation for damages.
In order to enter a no contest plea, the prosecutor must accept the plea first, and then the court may accept or reject the no contest plea, even if the prosecutor has already signed off on it. In deciding to accept or reject a no contest plea, the judge will consider factors that include:
the defendant’s mental state and ability to understand his or her legal rights
the damages and/or injuries sustained by the crime victim
What If You Are Innocent?
If you are innocent of the crime that you’ve been charged with, you should not enter a no contest plea or a guilty plea. If the charge against you cannot be quickly dismissed by the court or dropped by the prosecution, you should insist on your constitutional right to a trial by jury.
If you’re innocent, a Texas criminal defense attorney can investigate the accusation against you, protect your legal rights, and explain to the jurors why they should return a not guilty verdict.
In fact, you should reach out to a San Marcos criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible after an arrest, and have that lawyer accompany you to your arraignment. Adhere to your attorney’s advice regarding the plea you should enter and any other aspect of your case.
Should You Accept a Plea Deal?
You should not agree to a plea deal unless and until your defense attorney recommends accepting the deal. Don’t try negotiating a plea deal by yourself. Defense lawyers are trained, experienced negotiators. Put your lawyer’s experience and training to work on your behalf.
A plea bargain (or a plea deal, arrangement, or agreement) is a legally binding contract between a defendant and the state. It resolves the criminal charge (or multiple charges) against the defendant. In fact, plea bargains are how most criminal charges are resolved in Texas.
Typically in a plea deal, a defendant enters a guilty plea to a reduced charge and receives a lesser sentence. However, the state’s first offer should usually be rejected. Plea deals should be negotiated. Your attorney will ensure that you accept only the best possible plea agreement.
Why Do Prosecutors Offer Plea Deals?
If the prosecutor’s case against you is irrefutable and your conviction is inevitable, you’ll need an attorney who routinely negotiates plea deals that are acceptable to all parties involved in the case.
Criminal trials in Texas may take weeks – and sometimes months – but plea deals take minutes. A plea deal gives both sides more control of the case, because when a case goes to a jury, what the jurors decide to do cannot be foreseen in advance.
Plea deals are used to move cases swiftly through the Texas criminal courts. Without them, the courts in this state would be impossibly overcrowded and simply could not function with any efficiency.
What’s the Most Important Thing to Remember?
If you are charged with a crime in Texas, you must be represented by a defense lawyer who has plea bargaining experience and who knows which offers to reject, which offer to accept, and what plea you should enter.
A defendant makes the final decisions on these matters, but if you are the defendant, you should follow the advice of your Texas criminal defense lawyer. The most important thing to remember is that if you’re charged with a crime, you must contact a defense attorney as quickly as possible.