Plea Options in Felony and Misdemeanor Cases

In Michigan, once a person is charged with a crime, he or she must enter a plea. The type of plea that is entered can have severe consequences, and there is no room for error.

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What happens at arraignment on a criminal charge?

A person charged with a crime in a Michigan court must go through a process called an arraignment. At the arraignment, the defendant will enter a plea. In virtually every case, the defendant will “stand mute,” meaning not say anything, and the judge will enter a “not guilty” plea on their behalf. This is done regardless of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. A plea of guilty is extremely rare at arraignment and would only be in a defendant’s best interest under rare circumstances. At a later time in the case, it might be in the defendant’s best interest to change his or her plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” or “no contest.”

Types of Criminal Pleas

Anyone who’s watched a crime show or read the news is probably familiar with the most common criminal pleas: guilty and not guilty. But there are actually four primary types of criminal pleas that could be entered in court:


If a defendant pleas guilty to a crime, he is admitting that he committed the crime, giving up the right to present any defense, and subjecting himself to a sentence of jail or prison, probation, fines and costs, and more. A guilty plea must be made voluntarily, intelligently, and knowingly. If a plea is not voluntary or if the defendant did not understand what he or she was doing, the plea is defective and subject to challenge by motion.

Not guilty

If a defendant enters a not guilty plea, he is disputing the charges or taking a position that the prosecutor will be unable to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. By entering a not guilty plea, the defendant requires the prosecution to prove its case at trial. Most defendant’s initially either plea not guilty or have a not guilty plea entered on their behalf. A not guilty plea can be changed at a later time if it is in the defendant’s best interest to change the plea or enter into a plea bargain for reduced charges or a lenient sentence. If a case goes to trial, the prosecution will have to prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Also, the defendant will have an opportunity to dispute that evidence at a trial, produce defense evidence, and have a judge or jury decide if the government’s evidence is sufficient.  A not guilty plea can always be changed to another type of plea if it is ever in your best interest to do so.

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Insanity means that the defendant doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions because of mental impairment, or he was unable to conform his actions to the law because of mental illness or other defect.

No contest – sometimes known as “nolo contendere.”

A no-contest plea is similar to a guilty plea because you are not challenging the charges against you. But at the same time, you are not admitting or denying guilt.  The advantage of a no-contest plea is that a defendant does not have to say how the crime was committed, and his plea cannot later be used against you in a civil trial. Generally, the parties agree to the facts based upon the police report or other available evidence.

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What is a plea bargain or plea agreement?

In a plea bargain or plea agreement, a defense attorney and the prosecution work out a deal for a plea to a reduced charge. A plea to a reduced charge, or a plea in exchange for the dismissal of some charges, is known as a plea bargain. In a typical plea deal, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for some favorable treatment from the prosecution or the judge (often called a Cobb’s Agreement). Both sides usually get a benefit. For instance, the prosecutor is guaranteed a conviction in some form, and the defendant may get a lighter sentence or lower charge than he might receive if he was convicted in a trial.

The plea bargain usually occurs after a defendant has pleaded not guilty or stood mute during the criminal arraignment.  In counties other than Oakland County, Wayne County, Macomb County, Livingston County, and Washtenaw County, different practices and procedures may apply.

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