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What is an Alford Plea under Maryland Law?

Almost 50 years ago the US Supreme Court recognized that if certain criteria were met, a sentencing judge could accept a plea – in effect a de facto plea of guilty- from an individual who maintained they were, in fact, innocent. In the case, Alford plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape a potential death sentence. Ordinarily, a guilty plea must include a knowing and intelligent waiver of trial and an admission of guilt. In fact, a trial judge must generally conduct a searching inquiry into whether or not there is factual basis that a crime occurred, that the defendant committed it, and that this is the conduct to which the defendant is admitting. In Alford, the the Supreme Court determined that an admission of guilt was not constitutionally required.

“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.”

Before the judge can accept such plea, the State must show there is a strong factual basis that the defendant, in fact, committed the crime, and the defendant must clearly show they are willing to accept sentence without a trial, even though they claim they are innocent. The only admission made by the defendant is that the evidence against him or her is strong, and that they would likely be convicted There is no requirement that the defendant provide his or her actual motivation for entering the plea. Witherspoon v. State, 336 A.2d 819, 26 Md.App. 54 (Md. App., 1975). There may be situations in which such a plea is desirable. Perhaps a seasoned criminal defense attorney has been  able to negotiate a plea deal that involves a lesser sanction than is likely from a sentencing judge. There are some practical advantages to taking an Alford plea beyond avoiding harsher punishment. The colloquy that accompanies a typical guilty plea contains an admission to certain conduct. Those admissions could later be used, for example, in a subsequent civil trial, against the defendant. At such a trial, the defendant would be free to assert that he or she did not commit the relevant act, an option not available to one who has plead guilty. A defendant, who maintains his or her innocence, does not make those admissions. An individual who does not make an admission of certain conduct cannot have those statements used against them in subsequent professional licensure revocation proceeding. Rudman v. State Board of Physicians, 414 Md. 243 (2010). 

    -This Article was updated by Eric Kirk on 9/21/20. 

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