Before You Plead Guilty, Ask These Questions

By Ward Davison

Before You Plead Guilty, Ask These Questions
By: Ward B.B. Davison

Too often my phone rings and someone asks, “I was convicted of [insert petty crime here] seven years ago, can you help me get my record cleared?” The very fact that this question is so often asked means that many people pleading guilty don’t understand the consequences of making that plea when it results in a final conviction. Since the criminal justice system requires people to make informed decisions, you are doing yourself an injustice if you enter a plea without a full understanding of the consequences.

Sometimes you may feel it is expedient to plead guilty. Often this is done with the assistance of the government prosecutor. And even if the prosecutor works with you to secure what you think is a fair penalty for your guilty plea, it does not mean the judge has to accept it, though she usually will. Once you plead guilty, all sentencing is left to the judge’s discretion. You need to be aware of the full range of consequences of your decision. Before you make your plea, be sure that you ask yourself or your lawyer the following questions:

What is the economic impact of pleading guilty?
Let’s start with the obvious. It’s likely that you will be assessed a fine and court costs which can range from a couple of hundred of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars in extreme cases. If you’ve signed up for probation, you’ll incur monthly costs in order to stay on probation. If you are convicted of stealing or damaging someone else’s property, you’ll likely be forced to pay restitution. Even something as tame as a speeding ticket can get you on the State of Texas surcharge list. Failure to timely pay these fines, fees and costs could result in your probation being revoked and a warrant issued for arrest and you ending up in jail.

If you do go to jail; how will that affect your ability to earn money? What will happen to your credit if you can’t make all your payments? Will you have a job when you get out? When will you get out? We could do a whole other article on that subject!

How will this conviction affect me in the future if I’m charged again?
If you are charged again with the same type of crime, there is a possibility that the seriousness of the crime could be enhanced. A good example I like is that the person who is convicted of stealing $25 three times can potentially get a much heavier sentence than some convicted of stealing $10,000 once!

Is there anyway this conviction could limit my ability to live where I want to live?
Apartment communities and increasingly, Home Owners Associations, screen for any drug, theft or assault crimes. Be aware that if you plead guilty to a crime that you could have resolved without a conviction, you may be restricted from living in the place of your choice.

Will pleading guilty limit my ability to pursue the career of my choice?
Yes. Without a doubt. If you and another person are competing for the same job and are equally qualified, but one of you has a tarnished criminal history…guess who better keep looking for another job? In a world where background checks are a matter of routine hiring practices, a conviction for anything hinders your ability to compete in the job market. This especially true of your career of choice requires licensing. Pleaded guilty to some type of deceptive behavior? You’re going to have some explaining to do to the State Bar of Texas if you want to be an attorney. Pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance? Your ability to advance in the medical field just got a lot harder. DWI? Hope you don’t drive for a living. Theft? That’s a huge red flag for every employer.

This is not meant to discourage you from a certain career, because some employers & licensing agencies will still work with you, but you do need to be realistic about the decision you’re making.

I’m just a kid. My records will be sealed. This can’t hurt my future…right?
When you apply to college or for certain scholarships, certain convictions can be detrimental to the acceptance of your application. Even federal or state level grants can be denied on the basis of a conviction. This is especially hard for young people to understand. All they hear (sometimes) is “pay this amount and the whole problem is resolved today.” So they dig into their meager savings and pay the fine in the hopes that their parents or school doesn’t find out. But when the denial letters start coming in, the conversation will be much worse then.

None of the above applies to me. I’m self-employed; I don’t have time to fight this charge. I’ll just plead guilty and be done with it. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing necessarily. But have you thought of the Social Capital Consequences that may accompany your decision. Multiple websites exist solely to profit from your misfortune by posting your booking photo online for all to see? No one wants to end up there. Is this something that could go viral on FaceBook and create embarrassment with friends or family? Can it affect your small business through YELP or Angie’s List? Are you aware that certain countries (like Canada) will deny you entry if you have certain convictions, even misdemeanors, on your record? Are you prepared for extra scrutiny from law enforcement every time your ID or license plate gets run? There are several collateral consequences to having that criminal record. It cannot be expunged and may not be able to be sealed.

Soooo…is there ever a time to plead guilty?
Certainly there are…sometimes it’s best for everyone if you plead guilty before trial to a reduced sentence. But it’s important that you understand the full ramifications of your plea every time. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, at least schedule an appointment with one. Sit down and talk with him. Be sure you understand what rights and privileges you are trading to save some time or money.

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