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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. As Attorney Eric T. Kirk will tell you.

“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 a 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 that forms the substance of the crime. Under Alford, the admission in the plea colloquy is that the State possesses strong evidence, that would be sufficient to convict the defendant. There is no admission of criminal acts, specifically. This may have significant consequences if there is a subsequent Baltimore civil lawsuit, after the criminal case concludes. In that later case, it may well make sense for a plaintiff to introduce the defendant’s guilty plea, as an admission, and as evidence of commission of the tort that forms the basis of the suit. This could be a shortcut to victory. This route is not necessarily available to a Baltimore personal injury Plaintiff suing a defendant who has accepted an Alford plea.

Case Study:

Let’s assume a defendant has been charged with a violation of the drunk driving laws, and was involved in an accident injuring another person. For whatever tactical, strategic or other reasons, the defendant chooses not to contest that charge through trial, but wishes to accept a favorable plea. In a typical plea, the defendant would acknowledge and admit that they took the wheel while intoxicated or under the influence. That may be a significant admission in a subsequent civil case involving personal injury where the platiniff alleges the defendant was negligent in causing an accident. That Plaintiff may well want to argue that the defendant was drunk, out of control, unable to remember, or any other manner of things. A defendant who entered into an Alford plea would not make that same admission [only that the State could convict him or her]. Now, the injured plaintiff in this analysis may well be able to prove the conduct in question through other means, but not through the “cruel expedient” of admission of the defendant.

-This Article was updated on 6/27/23 by Eric Kirk.

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