In Georgia, there are a number of different pleas that a defendant can enter in a criminal case. Most pleas are guilty or not guilty. However, there is a special type of plea that can be tendered under certain circumstances. It is commonly referred to as an “Alford plea.”
The Alford plea originated from a murder case in North Carolina in the 1970’s. The defendant entered a guilty plea, but at the same time professed his innocence to the court. The defendant later tried to withdraw his plea. The short version is that he was unsuccessful.
However, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in his case that dramatically affected criminal law and procedure. The Court held that a defendant does not have to affirmatively admit guilt in order to enter a guilty plea. The only requirements for a valid plea are that it is entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.
In Georgia, the Alford plea is really quite common. It allows a defendant to enter a plea that is in his best interest (because of a probation recommendation, strong evidence against him, or a host of other reasons) without admitting to anything. This gives some defendants the peace of mind to take care of their case and move on with their lives.
However, there is an additional requirement when a judge is considering accepting an Alford plea. The judge must be satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea. This means that the prosecutor must put on the record what the evidence would be if the case went to trial. It is helpful if the defense attorney agrees that there is a factual basis for the plea. In the end, the judge must be satisfied that the defendant could be found guilty by a jury based on the facts of the case.
If the judge accepts the Alford plea, the defendant will be found guilty (unless he is sentenced under Georgia’s First Offender Act) and sentenced. The assertion by the defendant that he did not commit the crime will have no legal bearing on the adjudication of the case.
The Alford plea can also be used in future criminal prosecutions. Just like regular guilty pleas, Alford pleas can be used for impeachment purposes, enhancement of sentencing, recidivist punishment, and evidence of prior bad acts (this used to be called similar transactions).
I have sparingly used the Alford plea in my practice over the years. The reason that I sparingly use this plea is that I feel uncomfortable having a client plead to a criminal offense when the client will not admit guilt on the record.
However, there are rare occasions when its application has saved a client from going to prison. It is best used when you have a client who is unable or unwilling to accept the level of strength of the case against him or her. The fact that the client can tell the judge that the plea is in his or her best interest and that they do not want to risk a trial will often ease the defendant’s concerns.
Generally, the Alford plea is a good mechanism to use under the right circumstances. Without its application in some cases, there would be more jury trials which would strain the limited resources of the courts, increase the prison population, and needlessly put victims of crimes through the rigors of testifying in open court.