What Happens at a Plea Hearing?

You’ve done the crime, now you’re potentially standing trial for your offenses. But what does that mean? Your lawyer talked to you about trials, plea bargaining, and the requisite plea hearing, yet it still doesn’t seem totally clear to you. What exactly is a "plea hearing" and why do you have one? Simply put, a plea hearing is the court hearing where a defendant responds to the criminal charges against them. The response must be one of the following: a plea of guilty, not guilty, or "nolo contendere" (no contest). When the plea hearing takes places largely depends on whether you are in state or federal court.

Here you’ll find an overview of what happens at plea hearings, including matters of timing and where to find an experienced attorney if you are being investigated or charged with a criminal offense. Remember, you should always understand any plea agreement or plea deal you are entering into. If you aren't sure, it is important you speak with your lawyer before moving forward.

Plea Hearing Sequence

Let's start at the beginning. You are arrested for either a misdemeanor or felony charge. The district attorney decides if charges should be brought against you, and then the court proceedings begin. If you’ve been charged with a felony, you'll have a preliminary hearing and, if held to answer for the charges, you'll be arraigned. (For misdemeanors, you'll enter a plea at your initial appearance. There is no right to a preliminary hearing in a misdemeanor case). For felonies -- after your arraignment -- your case may be set for a status conference to discuss the case and see if you can come to a resolution without going to trial. If you strike a deal, you’ll enter your plea that day. If not, you'll move on to the plea hearing and possibly to trial.

Plea Hearing: Is that the Same as a Plea Bargain?

While it may sound the same, a plea hearing and a plea bargain are not the exact same thing, although a plea bargain can happen at a plea hearing. A plea hearing, which occurs before a judge with all parties present, is the step right before the trial itself. It is the forum for any last-ditch efforts to get the case resolved without the need for a costly and oftentimes burdensome trial. If the case resolves, the defendant will enter their plea of "guilty" or "no contest."

A plea bargain is simply the negotiation between the prosecutor and defense attorney. It is the action of negotiating the charges and potential sentence based upon the strength of the case. The prosecutor presents the defendant with an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with less than the maximum sentence. Some people argue that plea bargaining shouldn't be available because it doesn't allow for justice to run its theoretically impartial course. Yet, statistics show that over 90 percent of cases end in a plea bargain.

The Hearing

After a negotiation has been worked out and the judge has agreed, the defendant will be sentenced, either at the same hearing or at a later sentencing hearing. When the judge does take the plea, they will go over it with the defendant in open court and make sure the defendant is making a knowing and intelligent waiver of his or her rights and making the plea of his or her own free will (counsel cannot make this decision for their client).

What Happens at a Plea Hearing: Additional Resources

Free Criminal Defense Attorney Match

If you are thinking about how to plead in a criminal case, you should always consult with a skilled attorney before making any decisions that could impact your case or your future. If you have been charged with a crime and will be entering a plea soon, contact a criminal defense attorney right away to learn more. You can get matched with a criminal defense lawyer in your area today for free.

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