In general terms, a plea is a serious, urgent, and emotional request for something. The legal term plea refers to an individual’s answer to a legal declaration or legal charge. In a criminal court case, the defendant’s plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest, is his formal response to the charges against him. To explore this concept, consider the following plea definition.

Definition of Plea


  1. A serious, emotional request for something.
  2. A statement made by an individual accused of a crime, of his guilt or innocence.


1175-1225        Middle English ple

What is a Plea

A plea is an answer or response by a defendant as to a claim made by another individual. In the U.S., pleas are entered in all criminal procedures, given in during a criminal arraignment in most jurisdictions. In the event the accused individual, called the “defendant,” enters a plea of guilty, the case moves to the sentencing phase, as there is no need to have a trial.


A criminal arraignment is a hearing at which an individual who has been arrested and/or charged with a crime is formally advised of the charges against him. The accused individual generally enters a plea at the arraignment, though it is possible to postpone this step.

An arraignment is required in any case in which the defendant faces potential incarceration. Some states hold arraignments for both felony and misdemeanor cases, some hold arraignments only for felony cases. The arraignment must be held within a short time following the individual’s arrest, as this is part of his Constitutional right to a speedy trial. In most jurisdictions, the court determines at the arraignment whether the defendant will be held in custody, or released, pending trial.

Common Plea Types

There are three common plea types used in the U.S. legal system. An individual accused of a crime has the right to enter the plea of his choice, though an experienced attorney may assist him in deciding which type of plea would be most to his benefit. It is possible for a defendant to refuse to enter a plea. In such a case, the court is required to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf. The common plea types include:

  1. Guilty – A guilty plea is the admission by a defendant that he did indeed commit the crime for which he is charged. Such an admission of guilt waives the defendant’s rights, and can therefore only be made with the court’s consent.
  2. Not Guilty– A not guilty plea constitutes a complete denial of the charges against the defendant. When such a plea is entered, the government is responsible for proving the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  3. Nolo Contendere– Commonly referred to as “no contest,” this plea is entered by a defendant when he does not want to admit or dispute the charges against him. A nolo contendere plea subjects the defendant to the same punishment as a guilty plea, but it allows him to continuing denying facts of the case. While a nolo contendere plea acts similar as a guilty plea, it cannot be used against the defendant in future civil cases.

What is a Plea Bargain

A plea bargain is an agreement made between a prosecutor and the defendant in a criminal case. A plea bargain allows the prosecutor to settle the case without the time and expense of going to trial, and usually involves an agreement in which the defendant pleads guilty, or no contest, in exchange for lesser charges, fewer charges, and often a more lenient sentence. While plea bargains are worked out between the prosecutor and defendant, they must ultimately be approved by the court.

Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining

There are, of course, pros and cons of plea bargaining for all parties involved. The primary advantage of plea bargaining for the legal system is that it frees up a great deal of time for the prosecutors and the courts, as both are chronically overloaded. By eliminating time spent holding trials on a large number of cases, plea bargaining enables the courts to focus on major cases, and those that cannot be settled.

In making a plea agreement, a defendant is often able to have a number of charges dropped by pleading guilty to a single charge, or to lesser charges. In doing this, he also faces a lighter sentence than he would if found guilty on all of the original charges. Many defendants who enter into plea bargains also save time and money, as they do not have to pay an attorney for a costly trial.

Accepting a Guilty or No Contest Plea

During the arraignment phase of the trial, the court has the right to refuse the defendant’s guilty or no contest plea if specific elements are not met. Commonly, before it can accept the plea, the court must determine that the defendant:

  • Has the capacity to enter the plea – it is up to the court to determine whether the defendant has the mental capacity to enter a plea of guilty. If the court finds that the defendant suffers from a mental disease or defect that leaves him unable to fully understand the consequences of the legal process, the court can deny the plea. The court must ensure the defendant has also had the opportunity to speak with an attorney.
  • Knowingly and intelligently enters the plea – before the court accepts a plea, it ensures that the defendant has knowledge concerning his rights and the consequences of the plea. The court will also ensure the defendant is aware of his right to plead not guilty, and his right to a jury trial.
  • The plea is voluntary – the court must also ensure the plea is being made on a voluntary basis, and not as the result of force, coercion, or threats. If the plea is induced or coerced by another individual, it cannot be accepted by the court.
  • There is a factual basis for the plea – the court must determine if there is a factual basis for the guilty plea. The court looks at evidence, or hears a description by the defendant, to ensure there is evidence that points to the guilt of the defendant.

Withdrawing a Plea

After a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to criminal charges, he has the right to withdraw the plea at any time up until the court accepts the plea. Once the court has accepted a guilty or no contest plea, the defendant can only withdraw that plea if:

  • The court rejects the plea agreement made between the defendant and prosecutor
  • The defendant can show a valid and just cause for withdrawing the plea

Once a defendant has been sentenced on a guilty plea, the plea cannot be withdrawn for any reason.

Refusal to Enter a Plea

In some cases, a defendant may refuse to enter a plea at the arraignment. This may be a valid plan if the defendant has not yet been able to retain an attorney. In such a case, the defendant would only be delaying his plea. Sometimes, defendants simply refuse to enter a plea, or even refuse to speak.

When this happens, the judge often attempts to understand why the defendant is refusing to plea, and may try to convince him to do so. If the defendant’s refusal to enter a plea is unfaltering, the judge typically enters a plea of not guilty on the defendant’s behalf. Such a case usually proceeds to trial, as a plea bargain is out of the question.

What is an Insanity Plea

In some criminal cases, the defendant claims he is not responsible for his actions, as they occurred during a mental health episode. By entering an insanity plea, also referred to as “insanity defense,” the defendant is claiming a full defense to the criminal act, essentially pleading not guilty.

After an insanity plea has been entered, the defendant is evaluated by forensic mental health professionals, according to tests and parameters specific to the jurisdiction. These mental health professionals then testify before the jury in order to guide them in determining the defendant’s mental status, but are not allowed to offer an opinion as to whether the defendant bears criminal liability. The jury alone holds this responsibility.

The legal standards for determining whether a defendant was legally insane at the time of his crimes vary by jurisdiction. About half the states in the U.S. use the “M’Naughten Rule,” which states:

A defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity if “at the time of committing the act, he was laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.” (Commonly referred to as the “right/wrong” test.)

The other states commonly use some form of the Model Standard set out by the American Law Institute, which holds that:

A defendant is not held criminally responsible “if at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law.”

As of 2015, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah does not allow the insanity plea in criminal cases. All of these states, except Kansas, do allow a guilty but insane (or mentally ill) verdict by a jury.

Lorena Bobbitt Temporary Insanity Plea

In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt, a young housewife from Manassas, Virginia, found herself thrust into the public eye when she was charged with mutilating her husband, after she cut off his penis with a large kitchen knife. Bobbitt testified that her husband had mentally, emotionally, and physically abused her during their marriage, and that he had drunkenly raped her the morning of the event. Afterward, Bobbitt went into the kitchen to get a drink of water, saw the knife, picked it up, and used it to cut off the sleeping man’s penis.

While the nation focused on the outrageous mutilation, Bobbitt’s attorney helped her pursue a plea of temporary insanity. As Bobbitt faced a possible sentence of 20 years in prison, supporters pointed out that an abused woman shouldn’t be put behind bars.

At trial, the jury found Lorena Bobbitt not guilty on all counts by reason of temporary insanity. The jurors had agreed that Bobbitt had acted on an “irresistible impulse,” provoked by the ongoing abuse, and the rape, when she cut off her husband’s penis. Virginia law requires individuals acquitted by reason of insanity to undergo an inpatient psychiatric evaluation to determine whether they are a danger to themselves or others.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Criminal Arraignment – The arraignment process is used for criminal cases only. In some jurisdictions, criminal arraignment is only used in felony cases.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Lesser Charges – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser-included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser-included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.
  • Plaintiff A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.

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