Criminal Law

What Is an Alford Plea?

When a judge asks how a defendant pleads to criminal charges, the defendant can generally respond with guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A guilty plea means the defendant admits guilt and will receive a sentence without a trial. Not guilty means the defendant does not admit guilt and will likely go on to face a jury trial. No contest, or nolo contendere, means the defendant does not admit guilt but is considered guilty by the court, and will be sentenced.

However, in some states, there is another type of plea option. An "Alford plea" is named after a U.S. Supreme Court case that allows the defendant to be sentenced while claiming their innocence. An Alford-type guilty plea means the defendant decided it would be better to be sentenced than to take their chances in a criminal trial, which could lead to the maximum sentence.

The History of the Alford Plea

The Alford plea is named after the U.S. Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford, from 1970. In that case, the defendant was indicted for first-degree murder. As a capital offense, the defendant could have faced the death sentence if a jury found him guilty. There was a lot of strong evidence against Alford, and his criminal defense lawyer recommended a guilty plea. The prosecutor agreed to a guilty plea for second-degree murder, which carried a penalty of two to 30 years in prison.

Alford pleaded guilty but said he was not guilty. Instead, he said he was admitting guilt to avoid the death penalty. The Supreme Court held that the court could accept a guilty plea based on a voluntary and intelligent choice even if the defendant continues to claim innocence.

Significance of Pleading Guilty and Maintaining Innocence

The criminal consequences of an Alford plea are the same as pleading guilty or no contest. The court still treats an Alford plea as a guilty plea and imposes a criminal sentence, which may include a prison sentence and fines. The defendant still has a criminal conviction on their criminal record. A background check for employment or certain professions would still show the defendant's conviction. The only way to get the criminal record cleared is by sealing records or expungement.

One of the ways an Alford plea is different is where there is civil litigation related to the criminal trial. For example, if you are charged with drunk driving and injuring a pedestrian, that pedestrian could use your guilty plea as an admission of guilt in a civil trial for damages. Maintaining your innocence using an Alford plea could benefit your defense in a lawsuit.

States With Alford Pleas

Not all states allow defendants to plead guilty while maintaining innocence. State laws or state constitutions may only allow for pleading guilty, not guilty, or no contest. States that do not provide Alford plea options include:

Some of the states that do not allow for an Alford plea have found that pleading guilty while claiming innocence risks being unintelligent, involuntary, or inaccurate.

What Is a Knowing, Intelligent, and Voluntary Plea?

According to the Supreme Court, a defendant's plea has to be knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. A defendant gives up a number of their constitutional rights when pleading guilty to a crime, including:

  • The right to a jury trial
  • The right to be represented by an attorney at a trial
  • The right to a speedy trial
  • The right to confront witnesses

It is important for you to be aware of your rights and understand what waiving your rights can mean in a criminal case. If you plead guilty, accept a plea deal, or plead no contest, the trial judge will generally confirm that you know what it means to plead guilty. The judge will have you affirm that you are giving up your rights and that you are making the decision knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.

Why Plead Guilty?

There are clear reasons why someone would plead guilty to a crime, even if they are innocent. If there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that points to you committing a crime, the jury may likely find you guilty, even if you are innocent. When there is sufficient evidence against you, pleading guilty may give you better plea bargain options.

In a plea bargain, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss some charges, plead the crime down to a lesser offense, or offer a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. Talk to your criminal defense attorney about the best options in your case and if a plea agreement is right for you.