Why You Should Never Enter a Guilty Plea at Your First Court Date

Attorney David Stegall explains why you should never enter a guilty plea at your first court date.

As all major news outlets reported recently, Jayme Closs was able to escape her captor’s home and ran to safety. People throughout Wisconsin, and our country, have been moved by Jayme’s escape and homecoming. The fact that she found a way to survive such a tragic, and bizarre, situation is a testament to her strength and spirit.

In a recent conversation with friends, they asked why the defendant, Jake Patterson, did not enter a guilty plea when he was in court. If the allegations in the State’s complaint are true, why would he not simply plead guilty at the first court appearance and receive his sentence since he supposedly admitted to killing Jayme’s parents and taking her from the home.

Crime victims, and their families, demand and expect swift justice. This principle sometimes appears at odds with the rights of all accused citizens including the legal presumption of innocence and the right to a jury trial. However, even when the State’s allegations appear to be overwhelming, or the defendant is in fact factually guilty, criminal defendants should never enter a guilty plea at the initial court appearance for several reasons.

1. The System Is Not Designed For a Defendant To Enter a Plea at The Initial Court Appearance.

In Wisconsin, a prosecutor initiates every criminal case by filing a criminal complaint. The complaint is a written document that sets forth the State’s allegations (i.e. charges), the potential penalties, and a brief written description establishing why the state believes the defendant committed each charged crime. The main purpose of the complaint is to provide the defendant with formal written notice of the allegations against him or her.

Upon filing the complaint, the judge is required to read the complaint and decide, based solely on the complaint, whether there is “probable cause” to believe the defendant committed each of the charges. Probable cause is much less evidence than what is required for a conviction at trial, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. The initial probable cause determination by a judge is really a brief review the state’s allegations designed to catch or filter out obvious errors, omissions, or lapses in charging discretion.

Wisconsin’s criminal procedure for felony cases indicates that the defendant does not enter any plea at the initial court appearance. Instead, the defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing before he or she is required to enter a plea. A preliminary hearing is a brief hearing that requires the state to actually produce evidence to the level of probable cause demonstrating that the defendant “probably” committed a felony within the Court’s jurisdiction. The thought is that if someone is charged with a felony, that is pretty serious, and the state should be required to actually present some evidence in order to allow the case to continue.

Thus, in less serious misdemeanor cases, in some jurisdictions a defendant may be allowed to enter a guilty plea at the first court although this is almost never a good idea given the considerations below. In felony cases, a defendant does not enter any plea at all as described.

2. A Not Guilty Plea is Not a Sworn Declaration of Innocence.

It is important to remember that entering a not guilty plea does not equate to a declaration of factual innocence. Rather, by entering a not guilty plea the criminal defendant is simply indicating that they are relying on their presumption of innocence and right to a trial.

3. The Best Practice in Every Criminal Case is to Obtain the Discovery and Negotiate with the Prosecutor.

Whether your case is a misdemeanor or a felony, the best practice is to enter a not guilty plea initially so you can have an opportunity to review the State’s evidence and negotiate with the prosecutor. Discovery is a term that means you have a right to a copy of anything that the state is going to use in an attempt to prove its case. For example, police reports, pictures, videos, forensic testing results, etc. are all items that a criminal defendant have a right to inspect. However, the right to inspect the state’s file does not come into play until after you enter a not guilty plea. Thus, if you simply plead guilty at the first court date you are forfeiting the right to inspect the state’s evidence. If history as taught us anything it is that our criminal justice system is a human enterprise, which means there is a possibility of error. Stated differently, “the system” does not always get it right and having the ability to review and challenge the state’s evidence is a right that citizens in other countries do not enjoy.

In addition to reviewing the state’s evidence, by entering a not guilty plea initially it allows you to discuss the case with the prosecutor. Not every criminal case is a “who dunnit” type case. There are some cases where there really is not a dispute about what happened necessarily; rather, the dispute is over what does that conduct equate to in terms of charging. Prosecutors have almost unchecked discretion when deciding to issue charges. Sometimes prosecutors make mistakes in their charging decision or can be persuaded to dismiss or reduce charges based on information provided to them after the charging decision by the defendant and/or his/her attorney.

I believe that is always good to have options and you can increase your options at resolving your case by negotiating with the prosecutor. Remember, the default process is a trial where the prosecutor has the burden of convincing the jury of your guilt (to every charge) beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is a conviction at trial then the judge must pass a sentence. By negotiating, it allows you to explore other options to resolve your case besides this default process, which can be risk reward. Even if you ultimately reject all proposed plea agreements, you have the peace of mind knowing that you exhausted all options before proceeding to trial.