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Can I plead "not guilty" if I really did it?

A question was recently asked whether it was acceptable for a person who was factually guilty of a crime to enter a plea of not guilty. Not only is this practice acceptable, but it is a fundamental part of the Utah criminal justice system.

If you are facing prosecution for felony or misdemeanor charges in Utah, it is critical to have the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. DO NOT enter a plea of guilty without first consulting with an attorney regarding your rights and the various strategies that may be available for defending your case.

Contact us now to arrange for an initial confidential consultation with Utah criminal lawyer Stephen Howard.

Presumption of Innocence & Burden of Proof

Both state and federal constitutions provide that a person charged with a crime is presumed to be innocent. Under this principle, a defendant cannot be convicted unless a jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged or unless the defendant enters a plea of guilty (or no contest).

At trial, the prosecutor bears the burden of proof - meaning that the prosecutor has the responsibility to present evidence sufficient to convince the jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the defendant's guilty. A defendant has the option at trial of not testifying, not presenting any witnesses, not presenting any other evidence, and not even making any arguments to the jury or judge. (This is generally NOT a good trial strategy, but it is legally permissible.) If the prosecutor is not able to persuade the jury, then a not guilty verdict should be reached.

A defendant who chooses to forgo the right to a trial and give up the presumption of innocence can do so by entering a plea of guilty (or no contest). But giving up the presumption of innocence by entering a guilty plea carries serious consequences.

Opportunity to Consult with Counsel Prior to Plea

Utah courts recognize the importance of consulting with an attorney prior to entering a plea. Under Rule 11 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure, a court cannot require a defendant to enter any plea (guilty or not guilty) until the defendant "has had a reasonable time to confer with counsel." The rule further provides, and the Court of Appeals has affirmed, that a trial court "may not accept" a guilty or no contest where a defendant is not represented by an attorney unless the court specifically finds that the defendant has "knowingly waived the right to [an attorney] and does not desire [an attorney]." See, State v. Ostler, 2000 UT App 28.

Plea Negotiation in Utah Criminal Cases

The plea negotiation process is a legitimate and important part of the Utah criminal justice system. In many cases, a prosecutor ultimately may not seek a conviction on the most serious charges applicable to the case. Justice is not always best served by the imposition of maximum penalties.

Entering a guilty plea prior to consulting with counsel, prior to obtaining full discovery, and prior to engaging in meaningful discussions and negotiations with the prosecutor can deprive both sides of the opportunity to assess how best to serve the interests of justice. By entering a not guilty plea (even when the defendant wants to "accept responsibility" for the crimes), the defendant preserves the opportunity for both sides to make an full and appropriate assessment of the case and to determine how best to do justice.

Finding a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney

Salt Lake Criminal DefenseIf you are facing prosecution for a crime in Utah, consultation with an experienced criminal attorney before entering any plea is vital. Preserve your rights by contacting us now to arrange for an initial consultation. Utah criminal defense attorney Stephen Howard provides defense representation to clients throughout Utah.