Guilty or Not Guilty? What It Means to Make a Legal Plea

making a legal plea

Guilty or Not Guilty? What It Means to Make a Legal Plea

If you have been arrested for a crime in Arizona, you will be expected to make a plea in court on the next business day. You can choose to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Your lawyer will advise you on how they think you should plead, but ultimately, the decision is up to you. There are three ways to respond to criminal charges, each with different consequences. 

What Is a Legal Plea? 

If you are charged with a crime, you will need to enter a plea during a court proceeding called an arraignment. After the judge reads the formal charges, you will answer by making a plea. You can choose to admit guilt or deny it. There are three types of pleas that you can enter at an arraignment in Arizona: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. 


Answering the charges with a guilty verdict means admitting fault. The defendant recognizes that they violated the law, and that there is no legal defense for their actions. For misdemeanors, the judge will pass a sentence right away. For felonies, the judge will schedule a sentencing hearing. 

Not Guilty 

This plea means that the defendant does not admit to committing the crime they have been charged with. When a defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will set a date for either a pre-trial conference or a formal trial. Then it will be up to the prosecution to prove that the defendant committed a crime. They will do this through a process of discovery, where they gather evidence and seek witnesses. 

No Contest 

When a defendant pleads no contest, they are not admitting fault. However, they are agreeing to accept the consequences of the charges. For a plea of no contest, a judge may proceed with sentencing, or schedule a sentencing hearing for the defendant.  

Can You Change a Plea?

Changing a plea from guilty to not guilty can only be done for reasoning that is considered fair and just. Valid reasons include situations where:

  • The defendant did not understand the effects of pleading guilty.
  • A guilty plea was delivered without the defendant’s consent. 
  • The defendant has a viable chance at trial.
  • The defendant was denied a constitutional right.

Changing a plea to not guilty is easiest before sentencing. After a sentence has been passed, the only recourse is to file a petition for post-conviction relief. Aside from that, the only option is to request that the judgment be set aside. 

On the other hand, it is much easier to change a plea from not guilty to guilty (or no contest). The prosecution can present a plea bargain to the defense that includes offers like shorter incarceration times, a change from felony to misdemeanor charges, or any number of things. If they accept the plea bargain, the defendant waives their right to a trial, and the court can proceed with sentencing. 

Consult Your Lawyer Before Entering a Plea in Arizona

After an arrest, your first call should be to your lawyer. Working with a certified criminal defense attorney can help you secure the best results. Your initial plea is an important part of your case, and you don’t want to make the wrong decision. Your lawyer will help you understand the consequences of each plea, and help you decide how to plead at your arraignment. 

Todd Coolidge is a certified criminal lawyer with over 25 years of experience in the Arizona justice system. If you have been charged with a crime, contact us today to schedule a consultation.





Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (6/28/24). Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash.