Requirements of a Valid Guilty Plea

Constitution, Gavel, Guilty Plea

Requirements of a Valid Guilty Plea


At Coolidge Law, we understand that pleading guilty might not be your first choice, but sometimes it’s your only choice. Even if you are innocent, the evidence may be stacked against you, or you might have prior convictions, which could sway a jury of your peers to render a guilty verdict. Pleading guilty is the first step in pursuing a plea bargain. But what does that mean for you and your rights throughout the trial? Let’s take a brief look at the constitutional requirements for a guilty plea, and what it means for your trial moving forward.

Did you know:

     In Arizona, even if you do plead guilty, you may be able to withdraw that guilty plea.

Think of a valid guilty plea like a tripod. There are three “legs,” or constitutional requirements, of a valid guilty plea, and without one the other two cannot stand. We’ll cover them one at a time and explain how each leg supports  the other.

Leg 1: The Court Must Have Jurisdiction

The court presiding over the case, and therefore accepting the guilty plea, must have jurisdiction. Typically this means that the court must be in the state where the crime was committed, or where the parties affected by the crime reside. 

If a person who resides in one state travels to another state and commits a crime involving residents of that state, the person who committed the crime can be extradited to the state where the crime was committed for trial.

So, for a guilty plea to be valid, it must be presented to a court in the state where you were accused. The actual plea is generally entered by the defence in open court so that it’s on the record. You may or may not be required to attend this hearing. 

Did you know:

     Pleading no contest is like pleading guilty, except that a no contest plea cannot be used against you if you’re accused of a related crime.

Leg 2: The Defendant Must be Competent

A court requires the defendant to be competent enough to enter a plea. For example, they must not be mentally deficient, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The standards for establishing whether a defendant is mentally competent are much the same as establishing whether the defendant is fit for trial.

It must be expressly clear that the defendant understands the ramifications of the plea. They must understand that they are waiving their 5th and 6th constitutional rights (the right to not incriminate themselves, the right to a trial and the right to confront their accusers). 

Leg 3: The Plea Must be Entered Voluntarily

The third constitutional requirement for a guilty plea to be valid is that the plea must be voluntary. Competence and voluntariness are closely related. Competence is the base level of understanding demonstrated by the defendant at the time of entering the guilty plea. Voluntariness is the defendant’s ability to understand the implications of that specific guilty plea and to still offer it of their own free will. A defendant must understand key points about the consequences of the plea. This includes the maximum sentence for the crime, and as mentioned before, the waiving of constitutional rights. 

A guilty plea which is entered out of fear from threats made against the defendant is not a valid plea. Likewise, the defendant can not be misled into offering a guilty plea with false information. A guilty plea can, however, be considered valid if the defendant enters into a plea bargain out of fear of a guilty verdict in trial. Plea bargains generally have reduced sentences, while guilty verdicts rendered at trial can mean harsher sentences depending on the judges ruling.

It’s important to understand that entering a guilty plea means you are waving your constitutional rights. It waives your right to a trial and any evidence you may have to prove your innocence is irrelevant if you enter a guilty plea. 

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Arizona

A guilty plea isn’t something to be made lightly. You should always consult with an attorney before waiving your constitutional rights. Contact Coolidge Law Firm (serving Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix and Gilbert) and let us discuss the best option for your case. 


Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash