If you are charged with a crime in the state of New York, you may insist on a jury trial or you can plead guilty, avoid a trial, and face sentencing for a conviction.

A criminal defense lawyer can discuss and protect your rights – or negotiate a plea bargain on your behalf – but when you are the defendant, the final choices are yours.

If you’re accused of a criminal offense in Westchester County or elsewhere in this state, what kind of plea should you enter? Is it ever smart to plead guilty? What are the advantages and disadvantages of guilty pleas – and not guilty pleas? Keep reading to learn some answers.

IF YOU’RE CHARGED WITH A CRIME, WHAT’S THE FIRST STEP TO TAKE?

The first step to take after an arrest is to contact and speak with an experienced Westchester County criminal defense attorney. Don’t answer any questions – you have the right to stay silent – and don’t agree to any plea “bargain” until you’ve been advised by a reliable criminal defense attorney.

Can the charge against you be dropped or dismissed? The first step your lawyer takes will be trying to have the charge against you dropped or dismissed. However, this typically happens only in cases where the police violated a suspect’s rights during an investigation, search, or arrest.

When you’re charged with a crime, but you are entirely innocent, in most cases, you should not plead guilty. Insist on your right to a jury trial. If you’re innocent, your attorney will use every available and appropriate legal tool to persuade a jury to return a not guilty verdict in your case.

WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS AS A CRIMINAL DEFENDANT?

In all fifty states, if you are accused of a crime, you have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and the right to have the case heard and decided by a jury of your peers.

Investigation

A good defense attorney will seldom recommend pleading guilty to an initial criminal charge or charges against you. However, your attorney will negotiate your case, and your attorney may recommend a guilty plea to a reduced charge as part of a plea arrangement.

SHOULD YOU EVER PLEAD GUILTY TO A CRIMINAL CHARGE?

There may be cases where it is in a defendant’s interests to go ahead and plead guilty, but you should not plead guilty to any criminal charge unless your attorney is persuaded that a guilty plea is the wisest choice for you to make.

Your attorney will know if your case qualifies for one of New York’s special courts, such as a Drug Court, Veterans Court, or Mental Health Court. A defendant may be required to plead guilty to take advantage of the programs offered by these special courts.

However, those who successfully complete the programs offered by these courts may have the charges against them reduced or dismissed – or be sentenced with lesser penalties.

WHY DO SOME INNOCENT DEFENDANTS PLEAD GUILTY?

But what if there’s nothing “special” about your case or the charge against you? Defendants – even defendants who are innocent of the charge – sometimes plead guilty for one or both of these very basic, expedient reasons:

  1. Money: If you plead guilty, you won’t owe an attorney for defending you before a jury. If your case may drag out over several years, your legal fees over time could become insurmountable.
  2. Time: Criminal trials can take months – sometimes a year or more. Continuances and delays are routine in criminal cases. If you’re convicted and file an appeal, you could be looking at years in and out of court – a big chunk of your life.

While there may be expedient reasons to plead guilty to a crime, a guilty plea to an initial charge against you is rarely necessary. Overwhelmingly in New York, the vast majority of these charges are settled with plea bargains (or “plea deals”).

HOW DO PLEA DEALS WORK?

Usually in a plea deal, the criminal pleads guilty to one or more charges, and the prosecution drops or lowers any remaining charges – or recommends a reduced sentence to the judge.

In New York, for instance, a first DWI (driving while intoxicated) charge can sometimes be reduced to DWAI (driving while ability impaired), which is a traffic infraction. The defendant accepts the penalty for a DWAI conviction and avoids the more serious DWI penalties.

Plea When Guilty

Do not accept a plea arrangement for any charge if your criminal defense attorney does not believe it is your best option. If you are innocent, there is nothing wrong with exercising your right to a trial and seeking a not guilty verdict. Going to trial is your choice and your right.

WHICH DEFENDANTS CANNOT ENTER A GUILTY PLEA?

In some circumstances, a particular defendant simply cannot enter a guilty plea and must resolve the matter with a dismissal of the charge or an acquittal at trial. Who should enter not guilty pleas?

  1. Anyone with a professional license: lawyers, doctors, nurses, pilots, teachers, and a number of other professionals can have a professional license permanently revoked or temporarily suspended as the consequence of a criminal conviction.
  2. Immigrants in the U.S. with a visa or a green card: You may be targeted for removal if you’re an immigrant and you are convicted of a felony, a violent crime, or a crime of “moral turpitude.”

If you’re an immigrant or a professional in New York, and if you’re accused of a crime, your status as an immigrant or as a professional is the first thing you should explain to your attorney. You probably can’t plead guilty – even to a lesser charge – as part of a plea bargain.

HOW ARE CRIMINAL CASES RESOLVED IN NEW YORK?

Criminal trials end with acquittals, convictions, or mistrials. When a jury is “hung” and cannot agree to a verdict, the judge in the case will declare a mistrial. A mistrial is rarely declared for any other reason.

Hung juries are good news for defendants. A mistrial means that the prosecution could not persuade enough jurors that you’re guilty, and sometimes after a mistrial, the prosecutor will decide that pursuing the case further isn’t worth it.

HOW SOON SHOULD YOU CONTACT A DEFENSE LAWYER?

It is imperative for every criminal defendant to meet with a reliable criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after the arrest.

In every criminal case, it is vital to consult with your attorney before answering any question, making any statement, signing any document, agreeing to a plea deal, or making any irrevocable decisions about your case.

An experienced Westchester County criminal defense attorney will explain the charges against you and how the law applies in your particular case. Your attorney will also be familiar with the special courts and alternative sentencing options that may be available to you.

What’s the most important thing to remember? If you’re arrested and accused of a crime in Westchester County – or anywhere in the state – you must have an experienced defense lawyer representing you and advocating aggressively on your behalf. That is your right.

By: Kimberly Pelesz

Family law and criminal defense attorney Kimberly A. Pelesz received a B.S. degree magna cum laude and an M.P.A. degree summa cum laude from Binghamton University. She earned her J.D. from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, where she was selected for Phi Alpha Delta. Her charitable activities include work with My Sisters’ Place in White Plains and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Humane Education Taskforce.

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