A plea is a declaration by the defendant in response to a criminal charge. Traditionally the choices were:

  • Guilty - an admission that the charge is correct;
  • Not Guilty - a denial that the defendant committed one or more elements of the offence.

(French - Coupable and Non Coupable) (German - Schuldig and Nicht Schuldig)

The first time a plea must be made is at arraignment. A Not Guilty plea can always be changed to a Guilty please at any point in the proceedings. However, the circumstances where a defendant can withdraw a Guilty plea are more limited.

In the past, the defendant had to enter a plea. In many cases in early legal systems, a defendant could often be tortured until they entered a plea. However, in modern procedure, a failure to enter a plea is treated as a Not Guilty plea. The most common reason for failure to enter a plea is that the defendant does not wish to attorn to the jurisdiction of the court.

Many jurisdictions now also allow a plea of Not Guilty by reason of Mental Disease or Defect, more commonly known as Not Guilty by reason of Insanity. This is generally treated as an admission of the actus reus of the offence, but a denial that the defendant could form the necessary mens rea to have committed the offence as they were unable to appreciate the difference between good and evil (the M'Naghten rules, which is the most common definition of criminal insanity).

The United States offers two additional pleas:

  • Nolo contendere (no contest). This plea accepts legal consequences of guilt but denies the underlying offence. It is generally used in criminal trials where the defendant faces tort liability for the same action. It avoids the problem raised by the doctrine of issue estoppel that arises under British law from a guilty plea.
  • Alford plea. Named after the Supreme Court of the United States case that established it, an Alford plea is an acceptance of legal guilt and that evidence exists that would establish a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but where the defendant maintains a denial of the underlying facts establishing the offence. It is generally used when the defendant believes that evidence may arise in future that would prove his innocence and avoids the legal presumptions that arise as the result of a Guilty plea that would not arise from a Guilty verdict. Prior to the Alford plea, a defendant would have to plead Not Guilty in such a case and possibly face a longer sentence for going to trial.