Guilty Pleas

There is one situation where a plea of guilty may be advantageous to you, but it is risky. Guilty pleas are best suited for offences like parking, red light camera, and no seatbelt (passenger only) tickets that do not affect your driving record or insurance. With these types of tickets, the only bad thing is the fine. If you can avoid it or reduce it significantly, then the conviction will be easier to live with.

Generally you have two opportunities to plead guilty. The first is to make an arrangement with the prosecutor prior to the start of court (before the justice walks in). The second is to change your mind at the last minute when you are called up for your trial and plead guilty instead of having a trial.

Guilty Plea: Arrangement with the Prosecutor

When you and the prosecutor agree that you will plead guilty and both of you will recommend to the justice what the fine should be it is called a joint submission. It is also known as a pre-trial agreement or resolution agreement. For example, if you have a $100 parking ticket, you can agree that you will plead guilty and you both will recommend a reduced fine of $30.

Another example, at pre-trial, the prosecutor may offer you a reduced charge. So instead of speeding 20km/hr over the limit, you both agree you will plead guilty to speeding 15km/hr over the limit.

Risky Business

If you are going to plead guilty, you must understand how the process works. As mentioned above, there is some risk. The prosecutor has no control over your sentence. In other words they do not decide what the fine will be. It is sometimes up to the justice. This is the key factor for a guilty plea.

Some fines are set by statue. In other words the justice cannot change the fine amount. For example, a speeding fine is based on how fast you were going. The justice looks up the kilometres on a table and administers the corresponding fine amount.

Some fines have a range, for example, "an amount not to exceed $500". In this case any amount under $500 can be given. Some fines have a minimum amount that a justice cannot go below except in extremely rare circumstances. (A full explanation on fines is covered here.)

In the last example, where there is a range to the fine, the justice can decide the amount regardless of what you and the prosecutor might agree to. This is where the risk comes in. Although you have agreed to plead guilty and you think you know what the fine will be, the justice may think otherwise.

A joint submission should not be rejected unless it is contrary to the public interest and the sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. (A summary of the law on this point can be found here). If the justice thinks you are getting too much of a good deal, they can reject it.

For example, in the following case, R. v. Fong, 2004 the defendant plead guilty to driving with no insurance which normally has a fine of not less than $5,000 and not more than $25,000. However a joint agreement with the prosecutor recommended a fine of $2,000. The court balked. Even though the court acknowledged the defendant was a poor student and the fine severe, the court fined him $5,000 anyway and considered it appropriate as the minimum fine amount was set to discourage people from driving without insurance.

The other point to note is that you cannot go back. Having plead guilty, you have given up your right to a trial. You are now at the mercy of the justice during sentencing.

Guilty Plea: When the Court is Polled

Another opportunity to plead guilty is just before the court is about to start hearing trials. If the prosecutor did not have enough time to meet with everyone prior to the start of court, he may poll the courtroom to see if anyone else wishes to plead guilty. Even if you told the prosecutor you wanted a trial, you can change your mind at this point. You can also do it later when you are called up for your trial.

It is usually best to plead guilty after all the other guilty pleas are dealt with. You will have the benefit of seeing how the justice has handled the guilty pleas. If you notice that your justice is suspending or greatly reducing the fines for every guilty plea then it may be worthwhile to plead guilty in the hope that he will suspend your fine too. If she was not giving anyone a break, the guilty plea will not be your best option.

If you are changing your plea at this point, the prosecutor is under no obligation to recommend a lower fine since you did not come to a resolution agreement at pre-trial. She may in fact give you a hard time by recommending a higher fine.

What you can do is point out to the justice that you have already paid an economic penalty by taking time off work to attend court. Also you have not taken up the court's time with a trial. You can further minimize the fine by following the helpful tips in the Sentencing section.

Guilty Plea Procedure

There are several steps that must be followed to enter a guilty plea.

First the prosecutor will call your name. You must go to the front and state your name out loud for the court record. If you are not the defendant, the justice will ask who you are and what have you been instructed to do by the defendant. For example a student away at school may send a parent to go on their behalf or a daughter may not want her dad to find out about a parking ticket and will show up to court even though her father is the named defendant on the ticket. The justice wants to know that the defendant has authorized you to speak on their behalf.

Next, the prosecutor will mumble something like "anticipated guilty plea your worship" to indicate that you are going to plead guilty. If you have agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, the prosecutor will ask the court to amend the original charge to the new, lesser one. For example, if you are charged with careless driving, the charge may be amended to unsafe lane change. The justice will ask you whether you agree to have the charge amended. You say "yes".

After this the clerk of the court will begin the arraignment where she will read the (amended) charge out loud to you: "Jane Smith you stand charged that on September 27, 2014 at 3:45 p.m. near 5100 Yonge Street you did commit the offence of unsafe lane change contrary to the Highway Traffic Act, section 142(1). To this charge, how do you plead – guilty or not guilty?"

You say "guilty". The justice will ask you if you are making this plea voluntarily. In other words has anyone coerced you or forced you to plead guilty? Tell the justice you are making the plea voluntarily. The justice will then ask you whether you understand that by pleading guilty you are giving up the right to a trial. You say "yes". He will then find you guilty and enter a conviction on the court docket.

The justice will then ask the prosecutor for a recommendation as to what the penalty should be. If you and the prosecutor have reached an agreement about the fine, the prosecutor will state what you've agreed to. The justice will then ask you what you think the penalty should be. At this point you confirm what the prosecutor said. If it is a speeding charge, there is nothing than can be said as the fine is based on the speed, so they may skip this part.

The justice will then ask you how much time to you need to pay the fine. You can ask for up to six months to pay the fine or indicate that you will pay the fine now. If you ask for more time, the justice may ask you for a reason why you need more time. Good reasons are you are not working or you do not make much money or you need more time to save up that much.

If you indicated you wish to pay the fine today the clerk of the court will hand you a slip indicting the fine amount which you take to the conveniently located cashier's wicket. Otherwise, you may have to wait until you receive a notice of conviction in the mail and then pay the fine. Some jurisdictions will not mail anything to you so make sure you write down the correct fine amount and when it is due.

That's it. You can now leave. Don't forget to bow to the justice before going out the door.

Once the guilty pleas are dealt with, the prosecutor will move on to the not guilty pleas (which means people who want a trial).

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