To Plead Guilty Or Not Guilty: Things You Should Know
If you are charged with a criminal offence the most important issue that you will discuss with your lawyer is whether you will plead guilty or not guilty to the charge.
Your lawyer can request the evidence from the police and ultimately make an assessment about the strength of the prosecution case against you. However you may already have a fair indication about the strength of the prosecution case, even before the evidentiary materials are disclosed to your lawyer.
If the evidence supporting the charge is weak, then there will be greater justification for you to plead not guilty and defend the charge. Conversely if the evidence against you is strong then it is important to recognise the likelihood of being convicted and therefore the benefits of pleading guilty to the charge.
Discount For A Plea of Guilty
If the evidence against you is strong and there are solid prospects of you being found guilty after a trial then there are practical benefits to pleading guilty at an early stage.
The law recognises that a plea of guilty benefits the community because it avoids lengthy proceedings and lightens the workload of the courts and of the criminal justice system. Consequently an offender who pleads guilty to a charge is afforded a discount on the sentence which would otherwise have been imposed following a finding of guilt after a trial.
The principle of a discount on a sentence for an early plea is found in section 9AA of the Sentencing Act. That section reads as follows:
Plea of guilty, sentence may be reduced in case of:
(1) In this section —
fixed term has the meaning given in section 85(1);
head sentence, for an offence, means the sentence that a court would have imposed for the offence if —
(a) the offender had been found guilty after a plea of not guilty; and
(b) there were no mitigating factors;
victim has the meaning given in section 13.
(2) If a person pleads guilty to a charge for an offence, the court may reduce the head sentence for the offence in order to recognise the benefits to the State, and to any victim of or witness to the offence, resulting from the plea.
(3) The earlier in the proceedings the plea is made, the greater the reduction in the sentence may be.
(4) If the head sentence for an offence is or includes a fixed term, the court must not reduce the fixed term under subsection (2) —
(a) by more than 25%; or
(b) by 25%, unless the offender pleaded guilty, or indicated that he or she would plead guilty, at the first reasonable opportunity.
(5) If a court reduces the head sentence for an offence under subsection (2), the court must state that fact and the extent of the reduction in open court.
(6) This section does not prevent the court from reducing the head sentence for an offence because of any mitigating factor other than a plea of guilty.
What does section 9AA of the Sentencing Act Mean?
In simple terms, the legislation says that if you enter a plea of guilty to a criminal charge you may be entitled to a discount of up to 25% on the sentence that would otherwise have been imposed upon you in the event that you had been found guilty after a trial.
The extent of the discount will depend on when the plea of guilty is entered. Ultimately the longer the delay of a plea of guilty in the proceedings, the less the discount on your sentence will be.
The reduction in the sentence under section 9AA of the Sentencing Act does not take into account other mitigating factors, such as contrition and remorse, which often result in a further reduction of the sentence imposed.
What Should You Know Before Pleading Guilty
The decision to plead guilty or not guilty is a decision for the accused to make. There are however matters that an accused should be made aware of when making that decision. There are fundamental rules of law that apply in criminal proceedings. Those principles include the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and the standard of proof. Person’s charged with an offence should be made aware of these principles.
1. The Presumption of Innocence
The starting point in any criminal proceeding is that an accused is presumed to be innocent of the charge. Any person who strands trial is presumed to be innocent. An accused person continues to be presumed innocent unless and until either a plea of guilty is entered or a jury, by its verdict, finds the accused guilty.
Every person who stands trial in this county is entitled to the presumption of innocence no matter who that person is and no matter what charges they are facing.
2. The Burden of Proof
There is no greater concern than the wrongful conviction of the innocent. That is why the law requires that the burden of proving guilt rests with the prosecution.
It is the prosecution that brings the charge. It is the prosecution that has the wealth of government resources at its disposal. It’s the prosecution that points the finger at the accused, and it is for those reasons that the prosecution bear the onus of proof in a criminal trial. At no point does that onus shift to the accused to prove his/her innocence. The accused does not have to give evidence or call any evidence on his/her behalf. No adverse inference can be made against the accused for exercising that legal right.
3. The Standard of Proof; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The third principle in our criminal law is that the prosecution must achieve its proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In a criminal trial what is often at stake is a person’s liberty. It is for this reason that in any criminal trial it is not enough for the prosecution to tip the scales and prove that the accused is probably guilty of the offence they are charged with. Nor is it enough to prove that the accused potentially, or more than likely committed the offence.
Criminal law courts in our country are not courts of suspicion. They are courts of law and a fact finder can only convict an accused if they find, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty of the offence. Probably, possibly, potentially, suspicion, got a hunch – none of these findings are good enough. It must be much more than that - it has to be beyond reasonable doubt.
So if, at the end of deliberations, a member of the jury has a doubt about the guilt of the accused and that is a reasonable doubt, then the accused is entitled to the benefit of that doubt.
Other Matters To Be Aware of When Pleading Guilty
There are other important matters that an accused person should be aware of when deciding whether to plead guilty. These matters include:
- The meaning and content of each and every element of the charge the accused is pleading guilty to;
- That a plea of guilty is a complete acceptance of each and every element of the charge pleaded guilty to;
- That an accused does not have to plead guilty to the charge;
- That if an accused pleads not guilty the prosecution will have to prove each of the elements of the charge to the required standard of beyond a reasonable doubt;
- That once an accused pleads guilty to the charge it is unlikely that the plea will be able to be changed;
- The maximum penalty provided by law in relation to the charge;
- That an accused should not be entering a plea of guilty to the charge unless he/she is prepared to admit and accept the factual allegations for the charge that are necessary to prove each of the elements of the offence;
- That the plea of guilty will result in all the consequences of a conviction that might apply, for example:
- Immediate imprisonment;
- A trafficking declaration being made and consequently the possibility of the acccused’s property being confiscated pursuant to the Criminal Property Confiscation Act 2000 (WA); or
- A deportation order being made by the Department of Home Affairs.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence and want to ensure your interests and future are being protected by an experienced criminal lawyer, contact the Andrew Williams Criminal Law Offices on 08 9278 2575 to arrange an appointment time.