Q: What does it mean to “enter a not guilty plea” in a criminal or traffic case?
A: A plea is a person’s formal response to a criminal or traffic charge. A person charged with a criminal or traffic offense is called the defendant. A defendant is typically called upon to enter a plea at arraignment, which is the person’s first appearance in court. The defendant can choose from the pleas of guilty, not guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, and nolo contendere (no contest). Entering a plea refers to the judge’s act of formally noting a defendant’s plea, or “entering” it, in the court’s official file. As a defendant, your plea is a starting point and you may have an opportunity to change it as your case progresses. Choose your initial plea wisely, though; some are easier to change than others.
Q: I can’t afford an attorney. Must I enter a plea of not guilty before the court will appoint an attorney for me?
A: Generally, yes, depending on the charges against you. Procedures may differ from county to county, but generally, when you make your first appearance at arraignment, you must enter a plea of not guilty and tell the court that, because you cannot afford an attorney, you would like the court to appoint one for you.
Q: If I know I committed a crime, is it lying if I plead not guilty?
A: No. Under the law, you are innocent until proven guilty. All crimes in Ohio are defined within the Ohio Revised Code, and specific elements make up each crime. Depending on the offense you’ve been charged with committing, there may also be aggravating factors or additional specifications. These additional elements may carry their own punishment or may make your potential punishment for the initial crime more severe. By entering a plea of not guilty, even if you believe you have committed an offense, you are placing the burden of proof on the State of Ohio to prove all of the elements of the offense charged against you beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, you can honestly plead not guilty because, in the eyes of the law, you are considered innocent until the government proves you guilty.
Q: What if, as a defendant, I want to admit being at a crime location like the police say, or to being involved with the crime in some other way, but I don’t want to admit to doing anything wrong?
A: In such an instance, you would plead not guilty. For most practical purposes, pleas are an “all or nothing” proposition. If you do not want to admit wrongdoing, you should plead not guilty, even if some of the facts the government alleges are true. As stated above, each crime has a defined set of elements that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state can prove only some, but not all, of the statutorily defined elements, then the burden of proof has not been met, and you cannot be found guilty. However, if you enter any other plea, such as a “guilty” or “no contest,” you would, in effect, be admitting to all of the facts the prosecutor would otherwise have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Q: Do I decide whether to enter a not guilty plea, or does my attorney decide for me?
A: Before you enter a plea in a case, it is always wise to consult with an attorney so you understand all the potential effects of the various pleas you might make. However, the ultimate choice of what plea to enter is always up to you, even if it runs against your attorney’s advice.
Q: What happens after I enter a not guilty plea?
A: Typically, you would enter your plea at an arraignment. The arraignment is your first appearance in court, which you will make shortly after your arrest or after you’ve received your summons (like a traffic citation). After you’ve entered a not guilty plea, the case will be “set over,” or scheduled, for further proceedings, such as a pretrial or a trial. Usually, at the arraignment, a judge or magistrate will set the terms for your release between the arraignment and trial, but this is not related to the plea. A bond may be required. Just because a case is set for a trial date, it does not mean that there has to be a trial.
Q: What happens if I decide I want to change my not guilty plea?
A: Generally, you may change your plea at any time before a judge enters a final judgment in the case. This often happens when the prosecutor offers you a plea bargain (through your attorney if you have one), in which the prosecutor agrees to reduce or dismiss charges or agrees to recommend a particular sentence if you change your “not guilty” plea to a guilty plea. However, just because you pled not guilty at your arraignment does not mean you are locked into having a trial. You (or your lawyer) can negotiate with the prosecutor for some sort of plea bargain or other agreed resolution (such as a diversion program) right up to the day of the trial. Often, pre-trial conferences are scheduled by the court for just this purpose. Be aware though, that the court can decide whether or not to accept your change of plea or the prosecutor’s recommendations to reduce the charges and/or change the sentence.
Q: Can I plead not guilty in a civil case, such as an eviction or a small claims case?
A: No. There were once different pleas in all kinds of areas of law, but now pleas are only called for in criminal cases. If you’re a defendant in a civil suit, such as an eviction or a small claims case, your formal response to the complaint filed against you is called an “answer,” not a plea.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by attorney Robert A. Beattey. It was updated by Akron criminal defense attorney Seneca Konturas.