An Alford plea is a plea that may be entered by a defendant who has been charged with a crime. In entering an Alford plea, the individual essentially enters a plea of guilty, while maintaining a claim of innocence. In such a case, the defendant is admitting that, whatever evidence the prosecution has is likely to convince the court he is guilty. To explore this concept, consider the following Alford plea definition.
Definition of Alford Plea
- A plea of guilty that is made while the defendant maintains his innocence.
1970 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the case of North Carolina v. Alford
What is an Alford Plea
The Alford plea is sometimes used in plea bargaining, as it allows the accused person to enter a plea recognizing that the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a conviction, even while maintaining he did not commit the crime. This allows the accused to accept a plea bargain for a lesser sentence than he would receive if convicted at trial.
Effect of an Alford Plea
An Alford plea, which is also known as a “best interests plea,” accepts all of the consequences of a guilty plea – often based on an offer made of a lesser sentence – without admitting to the crime, nor any of its elements. This is similar to a plea of “no contest,” or “nolo contendere,” in that it moves the case past the trial component, straight to sentencing.
The effect of an Alford plea includes the obvious benefit of a getting a break on a potentially severe sentence; it may also serve to protect the defendant from being charged with other related crimes. It is not uncommon for certain elements of a crime, which are in and of themselves criminal acts, to come to light during the investigation and trial process. Avoiding this process may, in the end, reduce the defendant’s culpability, conviction, and sentencing for those acts.
Example of an Alford Plea
Johnny and his friends are partying at his house one night, drinking and using drugs. Things get out of hand, and neighbors call the police when they hear a gunshot. The next thing Johnny knows, he is waking up in a jail cell, then he is charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and assault causing great bodily harm. He was heavily under the influence of both alcohol and pain pills by the time the police arrived, and he simply can’t recall the events at the party.
As it turns out, Johnny is a local drug distributor – doling out drugs to local dealers for sales, and paying the wholesaler his cut. During the party, a man Johnny did not know showed up with one of Johnny’s friends. The man got into a loud argument with some of the partygoers, which soon turned into a brawl, and a gun went off. The man was shot in the chest, and required several hours of surgery, followed by a lengthy hospitalization to save his life.
The police investigation led them to believe that Johnny was the shooter, but Johnny knows he would not have shot anyone, even if they were arguing and fighting. Doing so would invite the police into Johnny’s home, where he had a great deal of evidence of his drug-related activities. When the prosecution offers a plea bargain in which Johnny would enter an Alford plea of guilty to aggravated assault, in exchange for a maximum sentence of five years in prison, Johnny accepts.
In this example, the Alford plea ensures Johnny has a much shorter sentence than he would receive if he was convicted of the shooting at trial. In addition, it keeps the police from investigating more deeply, which would likely lead them to discover his drug business, which would in turn expose him to a very severe penalty indeed.
Court Acceptance of a Plea
When any defendant enters a plea other than not guilty, the judge must review the case, and determine whether to accept the plea, and move on to sentencing. This entails considering the seriousness of the crime, and whether the defendant has a prior history of criminal activity. Even if the prosecutor has offered the plea bargain, and the defendant agreed, the judge is under no obligation to approve or accept the plea. Such things as the judge’s memory of having dealt with the defendant before, or even a consideration of how the community feels about the case, could affect the judge’s opinion.
Judge’s Review of the Plea
When a defendant enters a guilty plea, whether a straight plea of guilty, or of nolo contendere, or an Alford plea, the judge reviews it, to be sure the defendant understands what is happening. This often takes the form of a brief discussion in court, in which the judge asks whether the defendant understands that he is accepting punishment as though he is guilty, even if he is making an Alford plea, or no contest.
In the judge’s review of the plea, he must determine that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently accepting the guilty, or Alford, plea. This requires that the defendant do the following:
- Admit having committing the crime for which he is charged; or admit understanding the nature of the crime for which he is entering a guilty plea
- Understand the consequences of the guilty plea, including the effect of the Alford plea, both the potential full sentence, and the sentence agreed to in the plea bargain
- Understand the rights he is giving up by entering a plea of guilty. These include:
- The right to have an attorney (if he is not already represented)
- The right to have a trial by jury
- The right to not incriminate himself
- The right to confront and cross examine his accusers
Generally, defendants are allowed by law to waive their right to counsel, and to plead guilty – even if they maintain they did not commit the crime – if they are determined to be competent by the judge’s review of the plea.
Alford Plea Example in Murder Case
In 1963, Henry Alford was accused and charged with first-degree murder, which made him eligible for the death penalty in his state of North Carolina. Alford was offered a plea deal in which, if he pled guilty to second-degree murder, he would receive a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. During the plea hearing, Alford told the judge that he didn’t commit the murder, and that he was only entering a plea of guilty to avoid the death penalty.
Alford’s defense attorney appealed his conviction, claiming that his client had been forced into entering a guilty plea for a crime he did not commit, because he was afraid of receiving the death penalty. The appellate court upheld the conviction, stating that Alford had entered the plea fully understanding what it meant. The Federal District Court of Appeals then ruled that Alford’s plea was made involuntarily, citing the defendant’s statement of, “I just pleaded guilty because they said if I didn’t, they would gas me for it.”
The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took on the decision of whether the trial court had committed a constitutional error in accepting Alford’s guilty plea, even while he maintained his innocence. The Court ultimately ruled that the court could accept a guilty plea when the defendant was simultaneously claiming he was innocent.
In the 1970 Court ruling, Justice Byron White explained that a defendant is free to enter a plea of guilty in the face of innocence, if he decides that it is in his best interests to do so. In Alford’s case, there had been enough evidence to build a strong case for his conviction, which would expose him to the death penalty.
The defendant, who had competent counsel, knowingly entered his guilty plea in order to avoid this outcome. This ruling – that a trial court may accept a plea of guilty from a defendant who is simultaneously maintaining his innocence – became binding precedent, and guides similar cases today. Henry Alford died in prison, just five years after the High Court’s ruling.
Does an Alford Plea Count as a Strike
When a defendant makes an Alford plea, he is actually pleading guilty, while holding onto his claim that he is innocent. This guilty plea can be used as evidence in future cases, and can be considered in sentencing for future convictions on other charges. For this reason, an Alford plea does count as a strike, in states that have a three-strikes law, or other habitual offender law.
Not only can an Alford plea count as a strike in future cases, but if the defendant already has two strikes when he accepts the plea bargain, the strike may affect sentencing on the current case. If the issue of whether or not the defendant will be charged with a third strike is not addressed directly by the plea bargain, there may be an ugly surprise at sentencing.
Lilly is caught stealing clothing from a local shop, and fights with the security officer on or way out, before police take her into custody. She is charged with robbery and assault. When she accepts a deal to enter an Alford plea of guilty to only the charge of robbery, the judge accepts.
Robbery is a serious offense that earns Lilly a strike. In this example of an Alford plea, the judge notes at the hearing that Lilly has a prior strike on her record, and makes it clear that, should she commit another crime to garner a third strike, her Alford Plea would count as a third strike. This would expose her to a severe sentence.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Binding Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.
- Competent – Having the mental capacity to be responsible for one’s own decisions and actions.
- Culpability – Blameworthiness, deserving of blame or censure.
- 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.
- No Contest – A plea that, while not an admission of guilt, will be treated as such for the purpose of sentencing.
- Plea Bargain – An agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, or a lesser charge, in exchange for a reduced sentence, or some other concession by the prosecution.
- Three Strikes Law – Various state laws that require courts to impose harsher sentences on habitual criminals.