You are in the difficult position of having been charged by the police. It’s a pretty scary time! Depending on the nature of the charges, charges once proven can result in prison time, a criminal conviction, a substantial fine, or some other form of punishment.
Sometimes the best course of action is to contest the charges, and make the prosecution prove their case against you. That’s the best possible outcome – if the prosecution fails to prove their case it means you walk away with no penalty or record at all.
At other times, however, you might admit that you did the crime and there are no technical arguments or defences which can be used to get rid of the charges.
If that’s the case you may choose to plead guilty. The important job is to then obtain the best possible result from your guilty plea.
1. If you are Going to Plead – Plead Early
Pleading guilty at the last possible moment before a trial is still better than going to trial and being found guilty, however if you plead guilty at the first possible opportunity the Court will place greater weight on it. They can consider the fact you pleaded guilty early and give you a reduction in your sentence given you have saved the court significant time and resources. It also can show that you are genuinely remorseful for having committed the crime.
Statistics show that an early guilty plea can result in a sentence reduction of up to 20-30%.
2. Have a Theme
Once you plead guilty the Court will accept submissions in relation to what penalty you should be given. This is an opportunity to explain to the Judge or Magistrate the bigger picture of how they should understand the offending. It’s important here to have a coherent theme. For example:
- You had recently lost your job at the time and were under a lot of stress – what you did was completely out of character for you. Therefore the Court should consider this context and ‘give you a second chance’ by providing a more lenient sentence.
- You didn’t act intentionally or with any particular malice – the crime was not pre-planned, you simply did the wrong thing on the spur of the moment. While not excusing the behaviour, you argue that it shouldn’t be punished as severely.
- Your offending was caused in a large part due to the wrong friends you kept at the time and the drink and drug culture you were in. Since then you can demonstrate you have cleaned up your life (would be great if you can show evidence of successful completion of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation course, for example) – again, showing why you should be given a ‘second chance’.
3. Don’t Make Excuses
There is a fine line between explaining the context of the crime and making excuses for what you’ve done. You need to be clear that you admit you have done the wrong thing.
If there is a victim who has been affected by your crime, a good exercise prior to going to court is to step back and think about the crime from their point of view: how would you feel if you had to go through what they went through? For example, if it was an aggravated burglary, think about how vulnerable they would feel having had someone in their house. If they were assaulted, think about what they went through in their recovery process.
The Court will want to know that you understand the consequences of your actions, and be sure you are taking responsibility for them.
4. Character References
It can be very helpful to have references from your employer or people who have known you for a long time. Ideally, they should tie in to your ‘case theme’ discussed above.
For example, if you are trying to show that what occurred was totally out of character, you should obtain references explaining how it is completely out of character.
If you are seeking to show how you have reformed since the incident, it may be helpful to have character references from people who have observed that change in your behaviour – perhaps from your counsellor, pastor, or employer.
Character references need to specifically refer to the crime you have been charged with; they cannot just be general ‘Joe is a good bloke’ letters.
5. Know your Judge or Magistrate
A good lawyer appears in court regularly and knows the different Judges and Magistrates whom you might appear before. This is important because each Judge or Magistrate have particular things they find important or things they like or don’t like to see presented. The last thing you want is to spend 10 minutes focusing on your references if your particular Magistrate would place much more weight on oral arguments.
This isn’t all that easy if you are representing yourself. If for some reason you aren’t able to engage a lawyer to help you, however, at the very least it would be a good idea to go in to court a few days before your hearing so you can see how the system works, and learn what the Judges or Magistrates like and don’t like to see in their court rooms.
6. Know What’s Possible
Have a look at what you have been charged with, and have a look at what the penalties might be for that crime in the legislation. Some crimes, particularly driving offences, can have mandatory penalties, such as a mandatory minimum loss of license time. So there is no point going in and asking the Magistrate not to suspend your license, when they have no choice in the matter.
On the other hand, if they have some discretion, you can put forward as part of the plea what you believe an appropriate sentence should be. It may be that having a conviction on your record would be devastating for your career; depending on the circumstances of your case you might be able to argue instead for no conviction but a substantial fine instead, for example.
These are just a few tips on how to get the best possible result from a plea of guilty. It’s only general advice, however, and doesn’t take in to account your personal circumstances. Keep in mind that criminal charges are serious, and that for many offences, particularly second or subsequent offences, prison may be a real possibility – even if you do plead guilty.
Before going to court you really should speak to a lawyer to get some specific advice for your circumstances, and if at all possible hire them to come to court to present your case for you.
If that’s you, feel free to give one of our criminal lawyers a call on (03) 8658-0040 – the first consultation is completely free with no obligation – so it can’t hurt!