Someone asked me recently why so many defendants enter Alford pleas in North Carolina. I’ve wondered the same thing. When I was in private practice, I worked mostly in federal court, where Alford pleas are vanishingly rare. But in North Carolina’s state courts, they are almost routine. My interlocutor’s question got me thinking about Alford pleas more broadly, so I thought I’d do a post about them. It turned out to be a little longer than I intended, so my apologies for that.
Generally, an Alford plea is when a defendant maintains his innocence but admits that the state has sufficient evidence to convict him and agrees to be treated as guilty. It’s called an Alford plea after North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). The defendant in that case was charged with first-degree murder. The evidence against him was strong: witnesses stated that “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.” The defendant had a lawyer, who explained his rights to him and advised him to plead guilty. Alford maintained his innocence, but in light of the evidence, agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid the death penalty and secure a 30-year sentence.
Alford later filed a habeas petition in federal court, arguing that his plea was “involuntary because its principal motivation was fear of the death penalty.” Although the federal district court denied relief, the Fourth Circuit ruled in Alford’s favor. The Supreme Court reversed. It stated that “while most pleas of guilty consist of both a waiver of trial and an express admission of guilt, the latter element is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of criminal penalty. An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.” Indeed, it noted that no contest pleas, in which the defendant does not expressly admit guilt, have long been permitted. It held that when a guilty plea is accompanied by a denial of guilt, there must be a “strong factual basis for the plea,” in order to ensure that the truly innocent are not coerced into false guilty pleas. Finally, the Court indicated that individual states are free to prohibit, by statute, guilty pleas without admissions of guilt.
North Carolina hasn’t prohibited Alford pleas. In fact, they’re routinely accepted and have more or less been specifically approved. Cf., e.g., State v. McClure, 280 N.C. 288 (1972) (plea of guilty unaccompanied by admission of guilt permitted). Unlike no contest pleas, which require the consent of the prosecutor and the judge, G.S. 15A-1011, no statute limits the use of Alford pleas. There is some dispute about whether, and under what circumstances, a judge has the inherent authority to reject the use of an Alford plea; a leading commentator suggests that judges typically should permit them. Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure § 21.4(f) (3rd ed. 2007).
Generally, an Alford plea has the same consequences as any other guilty plea. State v. Alston,139 N.C. App. 787 (2000) (defendant entered Alford plea to indecent liberties and was placed on probation with the condition that he successfully complete sex offender treatment; when he refused to admit guilt during treatment, his probation was revoked; court states that Alford plea is “a plea of guilty . . . which bestowed upon defendant no rights, promises, or limitations with respect to the punishment imposed save as set out in the plea bargain and authorized the trial court to treat defendant as any other convicted sexual offender,” including the imposition of treatment as a condition of probation; entry of an Alford plea was no excuse for failure to complete treatment). In fact, an Alford plea has some serious disadvantages compared to a standard guilty plea. For example, it may provide a basis for denying the defendant the mitigating factor of acceptance of responsibility under G.S. 15A-1340.16(e)(15). State v. Meynardie, 172 N.C. App. 127 (2005) (entry of an Alford plea shows a defendant’s “reluctance to take full responsibility for his criminal conduct”).
So why do so many defendants enter Alford pleas? My sense is that there are two reasons, one psychological, and one legal. The psychological reason is that a defendant who has consistently maintained his innocence – to officers, to his loved ones, to his lawyers, and perhaps to himself – simply may find it more palatable to plead guilty without also admitting that his earlier denials were false.
The legal reason is that a defendant may view an Alford plea as providing some advantage in any subsequent civil litigation arising out of the crime. Although North Carolina appears to follow the rule that a guilty plea is not conclusive in a related civil matter, “evidence of a plea of guilty to a criminal charge is generally admissible in a civil case.” Camalier v. Jeffries, 340 N.C. 699 (1995). By contrast, no contest pleas, because they do not involve an admission by the defendant, generally are not admissible. State v. Outlaw, 326 N.C. 467 (1990) (a defendant who pleads no contest has been convicted, and if he testifies at a later proceeding he may be impeached with the conviction, but because such a defendant has not admitted the crime, he cannot be asked whether he pled no contest to the offense).
What about Alford pleas? Although an often-quoted commentator has asserted that no contest “pleas avoid estoppel in later civil litigation, while Alford pleas do not,” Stephanos Bibas, Harmnizing Substantive Criminal Law Values and Criminal Procedure:The Case of Alford and Nolo Contendere Pleas, 88 Cornell L. Rev. 1361 (2003), the situation with respect to Alford pleas is more complicated than that. Different jurisdictions differ regarding the effect of such pleas in a later civil suit. Compare, e.g., Parson v. Carroll, 636 S.E.2d 452 (Va. 2006) (does not estop defendant from denying guilt), with, e.g., Zurcher v. Bilton, 666 S.E.2d 224 (S.C. 2008) (does estop defendant). As far as I can tell, the law in North Carolina has not yet been settled. See Shehan v. Gaston County, 190 N.C. App. 803 (2008) (suggesting that when a defendant enters an Alford plea, the effect of that plea in a civil proceeding may “raise an additional issue,” but not reaching the issue). Given the treatment of no contest pleas, it seems plausible to believe that an Alford plea would be inadmissible in a later civil case, but of course, most criminal defendants are “judgment proof,” meaning that any protection an Alford plea offers is unlikely to be needed in practice.
Am I missing anything here? Defense lawyers, are there other reasons why you recommend, or your clients want, Alford pleas? Prosecutors, do you ever condition plea offers on the defendant not entering an Alford plea? Judges, do these pleas give you any heartburn?