After a criminal suspect is formally charged with a crime, his constitutional protections come into play. The first right that will arise is the right to plea not guilty. The defendant has the right no matter what the circumstances of his or her case. ,Typically, an offender will enter his plea of not guilty at an arraignment, which takes place shortly after the arrest and booking. At this early point in the case, it would be both rare and unwise to enter a guilty plea. A guilty plea at this stage would cut off any available options for the defendant. This just begins the process and will not prevent a defendant from negotiating a plea later in the case.
The defendant should seek the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Plea discussions can be fairly complex. Plea negotiation, like all negotiations, is as much art as science. In all but the most trivial petty misdemeanor cases, it is inadvisable for a defendant to proceed without an attorney.
The defendant is entitled to have the assistance of an attorney under the 6th Amendment. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, he will be appointed a public defender who are for the most part are both experienced and capable.
The lawyer can offer guidance on possible plea options. The attorney will work with the prosecutor to expand the range of possible acceptable options for the defendant. The goal is of course to minimize the penal and other consequences of the plea and the conviction.
A plea of guilty or no contest is a conviction and comes with all the consequences of a conviction. The most immediate consequences are possible jail time, fines, and probation. However, there are other consequences that should be considered as well such as employment and immigration issues. These are all issues that should be considered in deciding on and/or working out a plea.
Though the attorney can lead the defendant through the plea options and explain the consequences of each, the decision of whether to take a plea rest entirely on the defendant. The defendant cannot be forced to take a plea by his or her attorney or anyone else for that matter. On the other hand, bargains are handed out at the plea stage. They are taken off the table once the case proceeds to trial. So in some cases, there is strong encouragement and significant advantage to taking a plea.
If the defendant does decide to take a plea, there are several options. The most common pleas are the guilty plea and the no contest plea. However, there are other plea options as well such as the Alford plea and a conditional plea. In addition, depending on the circumstances, the attorney may be negotiating both the sentence and the charges. Finally, there may be options that result in dismissals, avoidance of an entry of guilt or conviction, and in some cases involving felony charges preventing the charges from being filed at all.
In short, plea negotiations can be quite complex and beyond the knowledge and/or ability of most defendants to work through on their own. It is important to work with an attorney, whether private or court appointed, to understand the process and the possible outcomes. In many cases, it is important to do so early as many possible options may be foreclosed as the case winds its way through the criminal court.