What does a "plea"mean?

Susan Karpa Criminal Lawyer in CalgaryIf you have been charged or are being investigated, hiring a Calgary criminal lawyer is important. I can explain the strategy for fighting these charges, the repercussions of a guilty plea, the nature of a peace bond if applicable, and other related aspects of your charges. Contact us now at 587-888-7149 for a free consultation.

What does a "plea" mean?

A plea is a formal statement of guilt or innocence made by an accused person and considered by a judge. There are also special pleas relating to defamatory libel, double jeopardy, redundant prosecution, pardon, and expungement, but they are extremely rare.

By pleading not guilty, the accused is stating that they did not commit the crime they are charged with and are willing to go to trial if necessary. An accused person who pleads not guilty can apply to withdraw their not guilty plea and enter a guilty plea at any time before sentencing.

By entering a guilty plea, the accused is stating that they are guilty of a crime and accept responsibility for committing it. Once the accused enters a guilty plea, the judge may accept or reject it. A guilty plea is not valid unless and until a judge accepts it.

The judge cannot accept a guilty plea of an accused who denies guilt. The judge may accept the guilty plea only if the judge is satisfied that the plea is voluntary and informed, and that the facts support the charge. A voluntary plea is a plea that is made without coercion. An informed plea is a plea made by an accused who understands:

  • That the plea is an admission of the essential elements of the offence (i.e., that pleading guilty is admitting to committing the crime).
  • The nature and consequences of the plea (including that a conviction may be entered and put on the accused’s criminal record, and the accused sentenced).
  • That the court is not bound by any agreement made between the accused and the prosecutor. (For example, if the prosecutor agrees to recommend a certain sentence based on the accused pleading guilty, the judge can order a harsher sentence.)

However, a guilty may still be valid if the judge does not ask the accused to confirm all these things.

When do I plead guilty or not guilty?

Many people who are in criminal court for the first time think that they must plead guilty or not guilty at their first court appearance. This is not true, and pleas are usually entered much later.

A not guilty plea is typically entered when setting a trial date, and a guilty plea is typically entered at the start of a disposition hearing, which is a hearing to plead guilty and be sentenced.

In order to make an informed decision about whether to plead guilty or not guilty, the accused must understand the crown prosecution’s case against them. This means the accused must know whether the charge against them is summary or indictable, what evidence the crown prosecutor will use to try to prove that they are guilty, and how strong the prosecution’s case is.

Many offences are hybrid offences, meaning that the crown can prosecute them summarily or by indictment. The decision of the crown to prosecute summarily or by indictment is called “crown election,” and I discuss it in a separate FAQ: “What does an ‘election’ mean?” Indictable offences carry harsher maximum and average sentences than summary offences, so the accused should know how the crown is electing before deciding how to plead. Crown election usually happens at one of the first court appearances.

When an accused person is charged with a crime, evidence is gathered by the police and sent to the crown prosecution, who then vets/edits it and provides it to the accused person – or to their defence lawyer – in what is called a disclosure package. It often takes weeks, and sometimes even months, for an accused to get disclosure.

Once the accused has disclosure, their defence lawyer can review it, do any legal research necessary, listen to the accused’s priorities and explain their options to them, and give them legal advice. The accused person can then make an informed decision about whether to plead guilty or not guilty.

This process often takes months, depending on how much disclosure there is, how complicated the law is, and how long it takes for the accused to receive the disclosure in the first place. The accused’s matter will be adjourned (scheduled to return at a later date) throughout this process and until the accused is in a position to make an informed decision whether to plead guilty or not guilty.

In some cases, the accused may be able to resolve their matter by having the charge dropped outright or after completing a diversionary program, without having to plead guilty or go to trial. I discuss alternative options to trial in another FAQ.

What if I refuse to plead?

If you refuse to enter a guilty or not guilty plea when it is time to do so, then the court may enter a not guilty plea on your behalf and set a date for trial. This happens rarely, and usually only if your matter has dragged on for a very long time with no steps being taken, and the judge wants to set a trial date to get things moving along. You can always apply to withdraw the not guilty plea and enter a guilty plea at a later date.

Can I plead guilty to a different offence?

You may be able to plead not guilty to the charged offence but guilty to a different offence based on your actions that gave rise to the charge. For example, you may be able to plead not guilty to second degree murder as charged, but guilty to manslaughter, or not guilty to arson, but guilty to mischief. You cannot do this unless the crown prosecutor consents, and the judge accepts your guilty plea to the other offence.

This option often allows you to receive a lesser sentence and less serious criminal record than if they pleaded guilty to and were sentenced for the charged offence.

You may even be able to avoid a criminal record entirely. For example, you may plead not guilty to the Criminal Code offence of killing, maiming, wounding, or injuring an animal, but guilty to the Animal Protections Act offence of causing an animal to be in distress, which does not result in a formal criminal record. Similarly, you may be able to plead not guilty to a Criminal Code driving offence, but guilty to an offence under Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act, which allows you to avoid a formal criminal record.

Can a guilty plea be conditional?

Guilty pleas cannot be conditional. For examples, an accused person cannot plead guilty on the condition that they receive a certain sentence, or “guilty but with an explanation.” The admitted facts of the offence may be negotiated between the accused and the crown prosecutor, and the accused may get the opportunity to say something to the court during the disposition, but the admission of guilt must be unequivocal.

Can I plead no contest to a crime in Alberta?

You cannot plead “no contest” to a crime in Alberta, or anywhere else in Canada.