Taking a Plea

October 26, 2015   |   Kathleen M. Joyce

If TV legal dramas were an accurate guide to our judicial system, the moment of reckoning for a criminal defendant would be in a courtroom after a jury returns with a verdict. But that’s not how it usually works. Most people charged with felonies never see a jury. In North Carolina, all but a small proportion of felony convictions are the result of guilty pleas. In fact, in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, only about 600 felony convictions in North Carolina came at the end of a jury trial. Over 27,000 convictions – 98 percent of the total – were obtained through guilty pleas.

There is no doubt that a negotiated guilty plea can be an ideal result. Guilty pleas save the court system time and resources, and defendants often benefit from the reduction or dismissal of some charges.

However, defendants who enter guilty pleas also forfeit certain rights. The most obvious ones are the right to a jury trial and the right to confront adverse witnesses. Less obvious, and certainly less well known, is that entry of a guilty plea also limits a defendant’s right to appeal the conviction.

Direct appeals in North Carolina are controlled by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1444, which restricts appeal after a guilty plea to the correction of errors in the sentence imposed. The appeal is not an opportunity to argue for a different, more desirable sentence. It is only a mechanism for correcting a sentencing error involving

  • the calculation of the points imposed for prior convictions (prior record level);
  • the type of sentence (probation or active sentence) permitted for a particular class of offense; or
  • the term of imprisonment authorized based on the type offense and the defendant’s prior record.

Defendants also have a right to appeal, if certain requirements are met, the denial of a motion to suppress occurring before entry of the guilty plea, or the denial of a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. No other issues can be raised on direct appeal following a guilty plea. Defendants can raise other issues in petitions to the appellate courts, but review is discretionary, not a right. The appellate courts can deny review without even giving a reason.

Our court system has become dependent on guilty pleas as an efficient and economical way to handle the high volume of criminal cases. However, the presumption of innocence remains at the heart of our criminal justice system. We must ensure that defendants who enter guilty pleas do so only after close consultation with their attorneys and with full understanding of the important rights they are relinquishing.

Kathleen M. Joyce is an Assistant Appellate Defender in the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD), a division of the Office of Indigent Defense Services. OAD staff attorneys represent indigent criminal defendants on their appeals to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court.