Why You Need to Resist the Urge to "Just Get it Over With": Top 5 Things to Consider When Thinking About Pleading Guilty to Any Kind of Charge

Four teens are in a car headed down the 401 from Toronto for a fun weekend in Montreal. The driver's a little over the speed limit - maybe more than a little over. And reasonably enough they get stopped on the highway for a traffic offence. A single marihuana joint is noted by the stopping officer sitting on the vehicle's centre console between driver and front seat passenger. All four are charged with a criminal offence under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. What should each of them do? (And no, this is not invented, as defence counsel I've dealt with multiple cases identical to these facts). 

I'm often asked by my clients: "should I plead guilty? What you do think I should do?" These questions are as equally applicable to serious criminal allegations like narcotics trafficking as they are to regulatory offences like highway traffic violations.

Unfortunately, a guilty plea is such a weighty personal decision, potentially having such great ramifications for my clients' lives, that I can't give them direct answers to those kinds of questions. As much as I would like to. But there are a few ways I can help them come to their own most important of personal decisions. 

The best I can do is explain to them: (1) all of their options (sometimes there are more options than simply plead or don't plead); (2) the likely consequences of their options, and (3) that usually they don't have to make an instantaneous decision about pleading. They can take a few days or weeks to talk it over with friends and family, and ask me follow up questions. The last thing I want for any of my clients is to later regret whatever decisions they arrive at. 

There are five primary factors I tell my clients to consider when deciding whether or not to plead.

1. Did you actually commit an offence act? 

For clients who are completely innocent of any wrongdoing, I can't ethically help them plead guilty to things they didn't do. Even though they might be offered good plea "deals" and even though those deals would get their matters out of the way so that they could move on with lives. 

I grew up in a naive bubble thinking the innocent could never be charged. But I've since learned there can be all sorts of factors contributing to who does or doesn't get charged. 

But there's some nuance to this question of whether they actually "did it" from a legal perspective. Even if you didn't do exactly what is alleged factually or legally against you, you might have still committed some kind of other offence, and so you might still be able to properly plead to something. Perhaps just not what you are charged with. Criminal defence lawyers can occasionally magically transform one charge into another charge with the cooperation of the Crown Prosecutor. 

But for others, like the four teens in the car, is it really plausible they were all jointly in possession of one joint?

2. Can you live with likely consequences of a guilty plea?

If the consequence of a plea will be a criminal record, and you absolutely can't live with that - perhaps because it would ruin your career - then you probably won't want to plead. Likewise if there will be a consequence like a two year driving suspension that you can't live with, again you'll want to think twice before pleading.

But if the consequences won't ruin your life - maybe you'll be getting a discharge that avoids a criminal record, or receive a fine that avoids jail - that a plea might be a good idea. But only if you're actually guilty. 

3. Can you financially & emotionally afford to go to trial? 

The answer to this question might depend on the kind of charges you are facing. Going to trial on an impaired driving charge might only cost you a few thousand dollars in legal fees, and the time waiting for a trial date could be under a year. However, going to trial on a drug conspiracy might involved tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and many years of legal proceedings as the case drags through first a preliminary inquiry and then possibly a multi-week trial.

Some of my clients just "want to get it over with" and move on with their lives. Whereas others are willing to be patient, and spend a year or more waiting to see how things play out. 

Whether a client gets bail is perhaps the most significant determining factor for continuing to fight a case through to trial. I've had clients spend many years on bail, still able to work and see their families, so long as they comply with their bail conditions. Whereas if you lose your bail hearing, and then possibly lose a bail review, you could be looking a spending far longer behind bars waiting for trial than you would ever spend imprisoned after losing a trial. 

4. Is the sentence after trial likely to be much worse than the sentence on a plea? 

The rule of thumb is that a guilty plea will save you about 1/3 off your sentence. But sometimes the difference may be a lot more or less. Like the difference between getting a criminal record, and not getting a criminal record.

Thus you and your lawyer will need to carefully evaluate the "bad outcome" risk of going to trial. For example, upon a plea to a first offence impaired driving the accused will usually receive a fine. After trial, it will usually also be a fine. Thus there is not much risk in proceeding to trial (although it could effectively result in a longer period of driving prohibition). But if the Crown will take a fine on a plea, and will want three months in jail after trial, then that is a huge difference. 

5. What are the chances of winning a trial? 

This is a question to which your lawyer might not be able to give you precise odds, but she or he should be able to tell you in general terms whether you have a defence to present. Sometimes the defence might be very "technical" (like that an officer wasn't properly qualified to administer a particular test), sometimes it might be based on a violation of your "rights" (like that there was no legal power to search you car), and at other times it could simply be based on your testimony needing to be believed at trial that you "didn't do it." Your lawyer should be able to tell you if you have good or bad prospects of success at trial, based on the evidence the Crown plans to present against you, and the legal defences you'll be able to raise. 

But ultimately any trial is a gamble, for both sides. Because the criminal standard of proof of "beyond a reasonable doubt" is so high, no matter what you're accused of, and no matter how overwhelming the evidence against you, you'll probably always stand a chance at trial. Memories fade. Evidence is lost. Judges are humans who can come to different opinions faced with the same evidence. 

For any these top 5 considerations, the key point to remember is that you should get some legal advice prior to making the decision to plead or not plead. That advice might be from your own privately retained lawyer, from a lawyer paid by legal aid, or from duty counsel in the courthouse. Where you get the advice is less important than the fact that you need such advice prior to pleading or setting a trial date. Information is power here. The last thing you should be doing is pleading to something you didn't do, and to which you have a strong defence, just to get it over with, or because the system seems stacked against you.


Gordon S. Campbell is a criminal and regulatory defence lawyer, who served as a Federal Crown Prosecutor on trials and appeals throughout Canada up to the level of the Supreme Court of Canada. He's the author of The Investigator's Legal Handbook (Carswell 2006; 2nd ed 2014) and Le manuel juridique de l'enquêteur (Yvon Blais, 2010) series of books. Learn more at defenceeast.com