The West Menphis Three (pictured here) is a good case study of using the Alford Plea. However, in their case, it is believed by many that The Alford Plea was used by the state to deny the wrongful conviction. The most cited and most familiar Supreme Court case on plea bargaining is North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). In 1970, North Carolina law provided that a penalty of life IMPRISONMENT would attach to a plea of guilty for a capital offense, but the death penalty would attach following a jury verdict of guilty (unless the jury recommended life imprisonment). Alford faced the death penalty for first-degree murder. Although he claimed innocence on all charges (in the face of strong evidence to the contrary), Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder prior to trial. The prosecutor accepted the plea, and he was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. Alford then appealed his case, claiming that his plea was involuntary because it was principally motivated by fear of the death penalty. His conviction was reversed on appeal. However, the U. S. Supreme Court held that a guilty plea which represents a voluntary and intelligent choice when considering the alternatives available to a defendant is not "compelled" within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment just because it was entered to avoid the possibility of the death penalty. (Alford had argued that his guilty plea to a lesser charge violated the Fifth Amendment's prohibition that '"No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.") The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and reinstated Alford's conviction and sentence.
The term "Alford Plea" has come to apply to any case in which the defendant tenders a guilty plea but denies that he or she has in fact committed the crime. The Alford plea is expressly prohibited in some states and limitedly allowed in others. In federal courts, the plea is conservatively permitted for certain defenses and under certain circumstances only
In an Alford Plea, the criminal defendant does not admit the act, but admits that the prosecution could likely prove the charge. The court will pronounce the defendant guilty. The defendant may plead guilty yet not admit all the facts that comprise the crime. An Alford plea allows defendant to plead guilty even while unable or unwilling to admit guilt. One example is a situation where the defendant has no recollection of the pertinent events due to intoxication or amnesia. A defendant making an Alford plea maintains his innocence of the offense charged. One reason for making such a plea may be to avoid being convicted on a more serious charge. Acceptance of an Alford plea is in the court's discretion.
However, in many states, a plea which "admits sufficient facts" often results in the case being continued without a decision and later dismissed. A conviction under an Alford plea may be used as a conviction for later sentencing purposes. However, one state supreme court has held that an Alford plea, unlike a criminal trial, does not provide a full and fair hearing on the issues in the case, and therefore does not preclude later litigation of the issues.
In North Carolina v Alford, the Supreme Court noted that:
"An individual accused of crime may voluntarily, knowingly, and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime *** when *** a defendant intelligently concludes that his interests require entry of a guilty plea and the record before the judge contains strong evidence of actual guilt"
Is there a difference between an Alford Plea, a nolo contendere plea and a guilty plea. To begin, a plea of guilty is, in effect, "a conviction, the equivalent of a guilty verdict by a jury. In choosing to plead guilty, the defendant is waiving several constitutional rights, including his privilege against self- incrimination, his right to trial by jury, and his right to confront his accusers." State v. Andrews, 253 Conn. 497, 502-503 (2000).
Under North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), a criminal defendant is not required to admit his guilt, but consents to being punished as if he were guilty to avoid the risk of proceeding to trial. . . . A guilty plea under the Alford doctrine is a judicial oxymoron in that the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that the state's evidence against him is so strong that he is prepared to accept the entry of a guilty plea nevertheless." (Citation omitted; emphasis added; internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Daniels, 248 Conn. 64, 66-67 n.2 (1999). The entry of a guilty plea under the Alford doctrine carries the same consequences as a standard plea of guilty. By entering such a plea, a defendant may be able to avoid formally admitting guilt at the time of sentencing, but he nonetheless consents to being treated as if he were guilty with no assurances to the contrary. State v. Faraday, 268 Conn. 174, 204-205 (Conn. 2004).
Finally, a guilty plea under the Alford doctrine is . . . the functional equivalent [to an unconditional] plea of nolo contendere". State v. Palmer, 196 Conn. 157, 169 n.3 (1985); which itself "has the same legal effect as a plea of guilty on all further proceedings within the indictment. . . . The only practical difference is that the plea of nolo contendere may not be used against the defendant as an admission in a subsequent criminal or civil case." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Town of Groton v. USW, 254 Conn. 35, 49 (2000). It is clear, however, that a nolo contendere plea also constitutes a waiver of all nonjurisdictional defects in the same manner as a guilty plea. State v. Madera, 198 Conn. 92, 97 n.5 (1985); cf. Lott v. United States, 367 U.S. 421 (1961). See also Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54-94a.
When a defendant pleads guilty, a factual colloquy is usually required. The defendant states on the record facts that comprise the elements of the crime. Infrequently, however, the defendant may plead guilty yet not admit all the facts that comprise the crime. North Carolina v Alford, 40 US 25, 91 S Ct 160, 27 L Ed2d 162 (1970).
Such a plea is valid in New York State. People v Friedman, 39 NY2d 463, 384 NYS2d 408 (1976); People v Krawitz, 151 AD2d 850, 542 NYS2d 824 (3d Dept 1989); Handling a Criminal Case in New York (2001-2002 ed.), § 17:36. In plea bargaining, the prosecutor has the right to make no plea offer. People v Cohen, 186 AD2d 843, 588 NYS2d 211 (3d Dept 1992). Thus, the prosecutor can refuse to accept an Alford as a plea to a lesser charge. However, where the defendant seeks to plead to the whole indictment via an Alford plea, the prosecutor has no right to stop this. A defendant has the right to plead to the entire accusatory instrument. CPL 220.10(2); Carney v Feldstein, 193 AD2d 1016, 597 NYS2d 982 (3d Dept 1993). Acceptance of an Alford plea is in the court's discretion. People v Moret, 290 AD2d 250, 735 NYS2d 535 (1st Dept 2002). Whether a conviction resulting from an Alford plea is "valid" for later use is important in two areas: enhanced sentencing and collateral consequences.
A prosecutor will want an Alford-based conviction to be valid for purposes of future enhanced sentencing. Is a defendant who pleads guilty to a felony on one occasion, by means of an Alford plea, eligible for predicate or persistent felony treatment when convicted anew? Yes. The Alford plea is valid for enhanced sentencing purposes. People v Geier, 144 AD2d 1015, 534 NYS2d 626 (4th Dept 1988); Handling, §§ 17:43, 21:98. A prosecutor may properly cross-examine a defendant about a conviction based on an Alford plea. Handling, § 11:29. The second area involves the "collateral consequences" of a conviction. A guilty plea, or a conviction after trial, can be used in later civil litigation against a defendant to collaterally estop the criminal defendant from relitigating legally established facts. S.T. Grand Inc. v City of NY, 32 NY2d 300, 344 NYS2d 938 (1973).
Typically, this occurs in tort cases, such as civil assault. See Bodensteiner v Vannais, 167 AD2d 954, 561 NYS2d 1017 (4th Dept 1990); "Collateral Effects of a Criminal Conviction," NYS Bar Journal, July/August 1998, p. 26. Does an Alford conviction have the same effect as a guilty plea after a full colloquy? The answer again is yes. Merchants Mutual Ins. Co. v Arzillo, 98 AD2d 495, 472 NYS2d 97 (2d Dept 1984). However, where the elements of a crime do not "match" with the tort, collateral estoppel may be inapplicable. Almeyda v Zambito, 171 AD2d 633, 567 NYS2d 272 (2d Dept 1991). Thus, an Alford guilty plea to a crime provides no insulation to the defendant, either directly (punishment), on later criminal cases (enhanced sentencing), or with collateral civil consequences.