The Texas Guilty Plea, Part 1: Admonishments and the Plea Colloquy

Defendants usually don’t realize their guilty plea was involuntary at the time they enter it. This is because involuntary pleas are almost always based on a misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or ineffective assistance on the part of plea counsel. It takes awhile for the defendant to realize what has happened.

Trying to undo a guilty plea is never easy. Defendants often fail to understand the legal significance of what they’ve signed off on. If you’re regretting entering a guilty plea and want to fight it, ring up a good criminal appeal attorney, because, as you’ll see below, the strategy you need to fight it depends on the procedural details of the case and at what point in the process you realized you’d been crossed, mislead, or misadvised.

In a three-part series, I’m going to describe how the guilty plea is protected by the Criminal Justice System, how a plea bargain is immortalized into a judgment, and how a plea open to the court works (and how defendants sometimes get screwed with this procedural arrangement), and how guilty pleas are challenged as involuntary.

Part 1: Papering up a Guilty Plea

  1. The admonishments and stipulations

The first thing you need to know is that all the paperwork you signed isn’t really designed to protect you, it’s designed to protect the plea and the judgment.

What do I mean?

The criminal justice system only works if upwards of 96 or 97 percent of the charged and indicted cases plead out. If everyone, or if even one in ten people, demanded a jury trial, the wheels would come off the system.  All that talk about your right to a jury trial is great, but, trust me, the system desperately needs you to take a plea.

And when you do take a plea, the system has a vested interest in protecting it. So the paperwork you sign creates a series of locks, each of which ensures that you (1) have waived all rights associated with going to trial, (2) know what the plea deal is and (3) knowingly and voluntarily want to forgo trial and take the deal.

Ostensibly, this paperwork protects you by providing written, explicit warnings about what rights you are waiving. But anyone who spends time in court knows (or should know, and I’m talking here to trial and appellate judges) that defendants often don’t have full command of the details of their waiver of rights or the meaning of their plea.

No matter what plea arrangement you enter into, you will always sign off on a document called “admonishments and stipulations,” which sets out the offense you’re charged with, the punishment range, and the list of rights you’ve agreed to waive. On most felony pleas, you’ll initial each section, sign the document, and place your thumb print on each page so that the State can always prove you carefully read everything.

Aside the from the judgment itself, the admonishments are the most important document you’ll sign, as it will create a presumption that your plea was voluntary. Appellate courts have for decades rallied behind the admonishments and stipulations as the Great Protector of the judgment. Courts have held that if the trial court properly admonished the defendant, there is a “prima facie” showing that the plea was both knowing and voluntarily made. See Martinez v. State, 981 S.W.2d 195, 197 (Tex. Crim. App. 1998)(per curiam). This means that the admonishments create a presumption that the plea was voluntary, and it is your burden as a convicted person to overcome that burden with evidence of some irregularity, misrepresentation, etc.

2. The plea colloquy

The plea colloquy is just a fancy way to describe the formal exchange you have with the judge when you enter your guilty plea. Normally you will go up to the “bench” where the judge sits. Your defense attorney will be waiting for you, as will the prosecutor. You’ll then be asked by the judge if you reviewed the paperwork with your lawyer and if it’s your signature on the admonishments and other documents. The judge will then ask you how you plead to the charged offense, and whether you are entering the plea competently, knowingly, and voluntarily.

Irregularities can occur during a plea hearing, usually in the form of a discrepancy between the signed paperwork and what you, the judge, or the lawyers say in open court. But if the plea is not recorded by the court reporter, there is no way to prove the irregularity. Appellate courts presume that the recitals in the admonishments are correct. So even if something weird or misleading happens during the oral plea, if you don’t have a record, you can’t prove it.

And if you think your defense attorney will back up your take on what happened in front of the judge . . . then I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you.

Bottom line: make sure your attorney requests a record be made of the plea. It’s your right to have the proceedings transcribed.

This gets us past the first step of the criminal guilty plea process. In the next blog post I’ll describe how the guilty plea is finalized when there is a plea bargain.