An Alford plea may be an option when:
- A person is charged with a crime that they did not commit, refuse to admit they committed, or can’t remember committing;
- The evidence tends to prove that they committed the crime;
- They are facing a serious penalty if they are convicted at trial;
- They are offered the benefit of a plea to a reduced charge or reduced sentence; and
- They prefer to accept the benefit of the plea bargain instead of risking the more severe penalty following a trial.
It is called an “Alford plea” because it is authorized by a US Supreme Court opinion, N.C. v. Alford.
How does an Alford plea benefit a defendant, and what are the drawbacks to an Alford plea? Is it different than a “no-contest” plea in SC? What actually happened in the Alford case?
What is an Alford Plea?
What is an Alford plea and how does it work? First, let’s look at the case that it is based on, N.C. v. Alford.
N.C. v. Alford
Alford was charged with first-degree murder and was potentially facing the death penalty if he proceeded to trial. Before trial, however, the prosecutor offered to allow him to plead guilty to second-degree murder which carried a sentence of two to thirty years…
Alford insisted that he was innocent of the charges, but the testimony would have been enough to convict him of the first-degree murder:
Before the plea was finally accepted by the trial court, the court heard the sworn testimony of a police officer who summarized the State’s case. Two other witnesses besides Alford were also heard. Although there was no eyewitness to the crime, the testimony indicated that shortly before the killing Alford took his gun from his house, stated his intention to kill the victim, and returned home with the declaration that he had carried out the killing.
His defense attorney recommended that he accept the plea, and, still maintaining his innocence but under threat of the death penalty, Alford pled guilty to second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 30 years.
Can a Prosecutor Force a Guilty Plea Under Threat of Death?
It sounds draconian – the prosecutor is literally saying to the defendant, “plead guilty or we will kill you.” Can they really do that?
Alford filed a post-conviction relief action after his guilty plea, and then a habeas action in federal court, arguing that his guilty plea was invalid because it was coerced by the threat of death.
Although the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Alford and found that the plea was made involuntarily, the US Supreme Court disagreed. N.C. v. Alford stands for two things:
- A guilty plea that is entered into under threat of the death penalty (or any other valid punishment under the law) is not involuntary; and
- A defendant can enter into a guilty plea while maintaining their innocence if the evidence establishes guilt and if there is a benefit to the plea bargain.
What’s the Difference Between an Alford Plea and a No-Contest Plea in SC?
SC Code Section 17-23-40 authorizes no-contest pleas in SC, also called “nolo contendere:”
The defendant in any misdemeanor case in any of the courts of this State may, with the consent of the court, enter a plea of “nolo contendere” thereto and upon so doing such defendant shall be dealt with in like manner as if he had entered a plea of guilty thereto.
How is this different from an Alford plea?
Although some courts will accept a no-contest plea to felonies, 17-23-40 only authorizes a nolo contendere plea in a misdemeanor case. An Alford plea can be entered in any kind of case including felonies (remember, Alford was charged with first-degree murder and pled guilty to second-degree murder).
So, as a general rule, no-contest pleas apply to misdemeanors and Alford pleas apply to felony offenses. If the court accepts an Alford plea to a misdemeanor or a no-contest plea to a felony, the conviction is still valid, however.
Should I Enter an Alford Plea to My Charges?
If you are not guilty, you should not plead guilty and ask for a trial.
This is why we have a constitutional right to a jury trial – you are entitled to make the state prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt, to testify, to not testify, to subpoena documents and witnesses, and to a defense lawyer to help you prepare your defense and try your case.
If you are guilty and you want to plead guilty, you should admit the offense as part of your guilty plea.
But… the decision as to what plea you will enter – guilty, not guilty, guilty under N.C. v. Alford, nolo contendere, or not guilty by reason of insanity – is your decision. Hopefully, it is based on solid advice from your defense lawyer, but, at the end of the day, it is your decision alone.
There are times when the evidence is overwhelming, you are either not guilty or can’t remember the events that led to the charges, the prosecutor is making an offer you can’t refuse, and an Alford plea or no-contest plea is clearly the best option. Those times are rare, however, and an Alford plea should never be your first option.
What is the Effect of an Alford Plea in SC?
An Alford plea has the same effect as any other conviction – you have been found guilty, you are sentenced, and there may be collateral consequences like the loss of your license or the loss of your right to own firearms.
You can’t reopen the Alford plea later on the grounds that you were not guilty – you pled guilty with the understanding that you were not guilty and waived your constitutional rights at the plea hearing…
Criminal Defense Lawyers in Myrtle Beach, Conway, and Horry County, SC
An Alford plea should never be a person’s first choice, and it should never be a way to coerce someone to plead guilty when they are not guilty. It is, however, a tool in the criminal defense lawyer’s toolbox and you can make the decision to enter an Alford plea when it is the best available option.