Criminal Law

Is an Alford Plea the Same as a Guilty Plea?

Guilty pleas are common. In fact, most criminal matters don't go to trial, but rather end when the defendant (the person accused of a crime) pleads guilty to committing the crime, usually in exchange for some favorable treatment from the prosecution. This is the typical plea arrangement. While these types of guilty pleas are common, however, there's a special type of guilty plea that's often overlooked. It's called an "Alford" plea.

What's an "Alford" Plea?

An Alford plea is when a defendant enters a plea of guilty without making an admission of guilt. In other words, he pleads guilty but at the same time he maintains that he's innocent. This is very different from the typical guilty plea where the defendant usually admits, in open court, that he's guilty of the crime.

The term Alford plea comes from a 1970 US Supreme Court decision in which the defendant was charged with first-degree murder, which was punishable by death under the laws of the state where the murder was committed. However, under those state laws, if the defendant pled guilty, he'd be sentenced to life imprisonment. The defendant was offered a deal in which he agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder with a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. At the hearing on his plea, the defendant testified that he didn't commit the murder and that he was pleading guilty simply to avoid the death penalty.

Ultimately, the Court ruled that a judge may accept a guilty plea from a defendant who doesn't want to admit guilt but wants the benefit of an arranged plea bargain. The critical questions the judge must ask in these cases are:

  • Is the defendant making an intelligent decision to plead guilty? That is, does he understand what the plea means, what rights he's giving up (like the right to jury trial, etc.), and that he'll be treated as being "guilty," despite his professed innocence, and
  • Is there sufficient evidence of the defendant's guilt? The criminal justice system is designed to help make sure that persons aren't punished unjustly; unless there's proof that he committed a crime. So, in an Alford plea, the judge must be convinced that there's enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime

In the Alford case the evidence was overwhelming that the defendant committed the murder, and his decision was "intelligent" because he was taking advantage of a way around the death penalty and life in prison.

Why Make an Alford Plea?

The best example of why a defendant may want to enter an Alford plea comes from the Alford case itself. If the prosecution's plea agreement gives you some benefit that you can't get if you go to trial and lose, then an Alford plea may be right for you. Another reason may if you're charged with crimes A, B, and C, but you and your attorney know that you only committed C, but the state may have enough evidence to convict you A and B. If you can enter an Alford plea for crimes B and C, it may be wise, especially if B and C are less serious crimes than A.

The facts and circumstances of case and your prior criminal record, if any, will play a big role in your decision to enter an Alford plea. Like any other guilty plea, you should discuss it thoroughly with your attorney to make sure that the plea is right for you.

Counts As a "Strike"

Like a regular guilty plea, an Alford plea can be used as evidence against you if you're later charged with another crime. This is important especially for sentencing purposes if you're subject to a "3 strike law," where a court is required to give a harsher sentence for person who commits three or more of the same or similar crimes. Remember, if you enter an Alford plea, it's the equivalent of a conviction. So, if you already have two prior convictions at the time you enter an Alford plea, that conviction plus the other two equals three convictions, and possibly a harsher sentence than the one you got on the first or second convictions.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What's the difference between an Alford plea and a plea of no contest or "nolo contendere?"
  • I've told the prosecution that I'd take its plea deal and plead guilty. When I go before the court to have a judge approve the plea, can I change it to an Alford plea?
  • If a judge doesn't believe that the state has enough evidence to get a conviction and doesn't accept my Alford plea, does that mean I have to go to trial?

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