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How do you plead when charged with a crime?

When you've been charged with a crime, at some point you'll be asked to enter a plea. You basically have four choices available in Louisiana: guilty, not guilty, no contest and an Alford plea.

This is what you need to consider before you make your choice:

1. If you plead guilty, your case is essentially over except for sentencing. Many defendants eventually plead guilty in exchange for consideration on the part of the prosecution in the form of reduced charges or a sentencing recommendation for minimal jail time and lower fines. However, if you plead guilty from the very start, you're essentially throwing yourself at the mercy of the court -- and throwing away most appeal rights while you do it.

2. If you plead not guilty, you give your attorney -- and yourself -- the opportunity to fight the charges. It's important to remember that "not guilty" isn't the same as "innocent." In order to be found guilty, the prosecution has to prove all the factors of the crime and convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed that crime. There's a lot of steps in that process on which any criminal case can falter.

3. If you plead "no contest," also known as "nolo contendre," you accept the court's punishment without actually admitting to the crime. This plea is most often used in cases where there's a strong possibility that a civil suit is likely to follow. For example, if you're charged with not keeping an assured clear distance from another vehicle after you have a car accident, you can plead no contest in traffic court and accept the fine -- without making a guilty plea that can be used against you in a personal injury trial.

4. An Alford plea is something that isn't available in all states, but it is used in Louisiana. It's a strategic plea that denies guilt but admits that the prosecution probably still has enough evidence to convict you anyhow. Based on that evidence, you agree to accept a sentence that's more lenient than if you forced the case to go through a trial and lost.

Whatever you ultimately decide to do, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney first and discuss the specifics of your case. That's the only real way to determine how each plea could affect you personally.

Source: Nolocontendere.org, "Nolo Contendere," accessed May 26, 2017

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