Alford Pleas

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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?

13 comments on “Alford Pleas

  1. Alford pleas make me uncomfortable. As a defense attorney I don’t like to see a client plead guilty to something he (or she) is unwilling to admit doing. However, I think I am obligated to follow a client’s wishes if he persists. It can certainly make sense to plead guilty to a substantially reduced charged and no one should be forced to change their story just to make the plea go through.
    I think many defendants believe that an Alford plea provides them with some latitude if they later decide to advance a claim of actual innocence. I think this benefit is mostly a myth, but lots of myths persist in the inmate population
    Alford pleas are common in state court because there are a portion of defendants who otherwise would go to trial and most judges and prosecutors do not want want to bear the burden of a trial if they can avoid it by accepting an Alford plea.
    The rarity of Alford pleas in federal court has a lot to do with the different culture there. The dockets are less crowded so judges are freer to reject pleas even though a trial might result. The benefits of “acceptance of responsibility” is more direct under the federal sentencing guidelines than under structured sentencing.
    I suspect that if a series of trials resulted in a federal district solely because of a judge’s refusal to accept Alford pleas, some type of accommodation for them would result.

  2. In my experience there are four reasons why Defendants plead guilty pursuant to Alford, all of which happen somewhat regularly; at least in the counties where I practice.

    First they may not be guilty of the charge in a particular instance, but they have a lengthy record and understand the likelihood of being found guilty is very high. As such, they will take an Alford plea if the state offers a reduced sentence for the plea.

    Second, a Defendant may assert his innocence, but recognize that a guilty verdict is a possibility. If the Defendant is in a position where going to jail would cause him to lose his children, his home or his job and the state offers a probationary sentence. The Defendant will take the guarantee of probation and plead guilty pursuant to Alford.

    Third, the Defendant may not be guilty of the charge for which he is accused, but is guilty of another charge, i.e. the defendant is charged with, but not guilty of, medicade fraud but is guilty of multiple counts of food stamp fraud. If an offer is made for the Defendant to plead to the original charge with an offer that he will not be prosecuted for the other matter(s), he may plead pursuant to Alford.

    Fourth, and related to reason two above, the Defendant is charged with a serious sex offense charge which he adamately denies. However, the state offers indicent liberties or some other lesser offense with a probationary sentence for a plea. Given the draconian nature of the punishments for serious sex offenses, particularly statutory sex offenses, I’ve had many clients opt to take the lesser punishment with probation to avoid the very long jail sentence.

    In each of the above scenarious an Alford plea almost has to be done due to language in the plea transcript which asks the defendant if he is in fact guilty or considers it in his best interest to plead guilty. A defendant who is pleading guilty but cannot for whatever reason truthfully say he is in fact guilty must plead pursuant to Alford or commit perjury when sworn to the veracity of his answers.

  3. Is there a case since SHEHAN that updates Alford pleas being used against a criminal defendant in a later civil case? More importantly, what if the defendant is the Plaintiff in the later civil case?

  4. I unknowing used the Alford Plea fully trying to attest my innocence to a misdemeanor charge and entering a no contest though I did not commit the crime. I was distressed, undiagnosed with ADHD 1, and not looking to go to jail. I was interrupted by the judge in explaining my reasoning because of the event and my plea was entered by the judge as guilty. Then the judge went out of his way to stand and and call out to the woman leaving the court and wave goodbye to her…

    I wouldn’t suggest anyone get any ideas. I got no plea deal, knew of no evidence, process of a courtroom, and had no knowledge of the laws I had broken. Gotta love America.

  5. My ex husband entered an Alford plea last year where he was being accused of sexual assault to a minor. I was wondering what it was since now he uses it as an excuse as to why he can not find a job. He is 23,000 plus in arrears to me in child support and our daughter just started her college journey. I believe he did what he did and since he has been able to skip around the court system with other charges he thought that he would be able to continue to do so. This post helped understand what an Alford plea means. Thank you! Now I wish we could change how those that are ordered to pay child support can be defended for free when they don’t pay. The consequences for not paying child support are very flexible this is how my daughter’s father after many time in front of a judge has been able to rack up arrears to over 23,000. Now he expects me to forgive the arrears. NOT!

  6. I have been researching the Alford Plea in order to help my ex-stepson. I was never a part of his life until I heard he was charged with being a serial killer and sentenced to life without parole in 2008. He had accepted an Alford Plea. It was just last year that I learned he was incarcerated in the prison near my home. I began writing, visiting and talking by phone to him. I am convinced that he is indeed innocent. It’s a long involved case. He was unable to read at that time and because of his uneducated upbringing was told to just trust his defense lawyer and do what he said. His lawyer had told him it wasn’t admitting any guilt and he was not being convicted by signing the plea. He wasn’t told that the judge could and did sentence him to life. Because of the plea, organizations like the “Innocence Program” will not take his applications. He cannot afford an attorney. I feel if he could actually get a trial, that he would be exonerated. Who can I turn to for help? Any lawyer that does pro bono? Any organization that would even consider taking on an alford plea or inadequate defense? Any help would be appreciated.

  7. What if my brother was told by his attorney to enter an Alford plea, without my brother fully understanding what it truly meant, and it not being explained by his attorney. My brother entered this plea on the word of his attorney. The attorney told my brother that he didn’t want him to face a racist white judge in the south being accused of sexually assaulting a white woman whom my brother had a past relationship with. My brother was afraid, and did not want to go to prison for something he told his attorney he did not do. My brother went ahead an excepted this Alford plea on the advice of his attorney. I know, cause I was there. My brother had to register as a sex offender. This was fifteen years ago, and he’s still on the registry. He have been a model citizen with a wife and five children. He have, and still is unable to find good jobs to care for his family. He will have to tell his three sons that he is a registered sex offender. I was there, and think it is so wrong that his attorney did not tell us that this was still a guilty plea. My brother was 26 years old at the time, and just did not understand what that plea meant, and neither did I. My brother is a good man, and a law abiding citizen. It hurts me so bad to see what he’s going through where no one will hire him to care for his five children. I feel as if this attorney should be sued for not tell us the truth!!

  8. I would like to know if there is a procedure that the court must follow when a defendant chooses to enter the Alford Plea. It’s my understanding that after the defendant enters the Alford Plea the state must then satisfy the judge that there is a factual basis for the plea. Is this merely the state giving their side of what happened and have it taken as fact or does the state have to provide evidence. One thing I have learned in regards to our great judicial system is that Assistant District Attorneys and District Attorneys make the best story tellers.

  9. My son is now facing charges in North Carolina.I really agree with the lady that said our Assistant District Attorneys and more so our District Attorneys are the best story tellers.I am amazed at their behavior.My son is absolutley being legally blackmailed,because of his extensive criminal background,none which is any thing of even great injury or any bodily harm.He took the Alford Plea not really even understanding it at all.Didn’t even realize he was pleaing guilty,only to avoid an active jail sentence.He apealled the courts decision of 13 months active time. A lawyer in Charlotte that received the case contacted me two times while he was in prison.After he was realeased,we recieved his completed explanation of the case.Which he said my son’s case was tried completely based on racial remarks he supposedly made while on his way to the court house to the Officer about the Officer’s driving.Had nothing to do with any of the things my son was charged with. The charges were DWI,speeding to elude,reckless driving,driving while licence revoked.All with in two blocks of our house.Speeding to elude was in a culdasack.Found innocent of DWI.The D.A. talked more about the racial comments than any of the charges but because his Public Definder did not Object the Judge allowed it, even after my son asked him to Object the P.D. refused. That has been fifteen years ago and two weeks ago my son and I both read about this case online.The Lawyer said my son had Inadequate Defense but he had already done 13 months in prison.Now, he is still paying for a disagreement with an Officer.The Officer’s driving had terrified my son,and because he supposedlly made a Racial comment the charges were ignored.Most of the other charges came during a bad breakup with children’s mother(not wife).Never anyone seriously hurt by my son,never anybody hospitalized or even had to hospital. He was just told it was better to do the Alford Plea not really ever understanding,only believing his Lawyer,now he still Pays!

  10. A recent DOT study found that many more accidents are caused by failure to signal than by all forms of distracted driving combined (including use of cell phones for talking and texting). It is insane that this state does not require signaling ALL turns to include changing lanes. That’s what signals are for folks!

  11. I have a charge of discharging a firearm within city limits. Tho I was protecting myself from a gang of young thugs..after explaining that to my lawyer she basically said my criminal background wouldn’t allow the state to dismiss the case.. so I feel I was protecting myself. . They feel I committed a crime.. I’m wondering would this Alford become beneficial..

  12. […] or believe they may offer advantages if they later face a civil lawsuit, according to a blog written by University of North Carolina legal scholar Jeff […]

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