Sunday, January 16, 2011

White Collar Crime, Alford Pleas, and Other Contradictions

Last week, according to various news reports, a former Atlanta City Council member was sentenced to five years on probation following a guilty plea in which she reportedly did not contest evidence that she allegedly stole $30,000 in city funds.  One of the interesting aspects of this criminal case is that her criminal defense lawyer convinced the prosecutor and judge to allow his client to plead guilty pursuant to a Supreme Court decision called North Carolina v. Alford.  In other words, as we criminal attorneys call it, this was an "Alford plea."
You non-criminal lawyer folks out there might now be wondering -- exactly what is an Alford plea?  Here is an explanation!  An Alford plea means that the defendant is entering a guilty plea and will be sentenced as in any other criminal case in which there is a conviction, BUT the defendant who is entering the Alford plea may still maintain their innocence!  I realize that this sounds like a contradiction in that an innocent person is actually pleading guilty!  However, the Supreme Court has held that, if a defendant who is in such a position recognizes that the state has a solid case against them, and if that defendant fully waives his or her right to a trial, then it is their Constitutional right to plead guilty, (while still maintaining their innocence!)
I guess some of you might think that this is something which only lawyers could create!  But the point is, as this criminal case illustrates, in some cases, it is your right to plead guilty, even though you privately maintain your innocence!  In my experience as a former state and federal prosecutor, (and currently, as an Augusta, Georgia criminal defense attorney), I have seen Alford pleas most frequently in white collar criminal cases. There are pros and cons to Alford pleas.  And this idea is something which each defendant would want to discuss carefully with his or her criminal lawyer. 
Why do you think Alford pleas might occur most frequently in white collar crime cases, such as in fraud or theft cases?

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