On pleading guilty

You Miserable Pleader!

Thus Sid James as Mark Anthony rebukes Kenneth Conner’s grovelling Hengist Pod when he says “I plead for mercy, I plead for my life, I plead for forgiveness”. If you don’t want your court case turned into a sorry version of Carry on Cleo heed our words of wisdom below.

The first cases from Bristol “Kill The Bill” demonstration have come to court. These are mostly for Riot (s1 Public Order Act 1986). Riot is the most serious public order offence with sentences in the three to nine-year range upon conviction. Bristol Defendant Solidarity is offering unconditional support to all defendants but they can only help those who are willing to help themselves. Unfortunately, some defendants have chosen to plead guilty. We think this is very unwise both for them personally and for the cause they espoused.

It’s a well-known fact that “The Process is the Punishment”. A common reason for pleading guilty is “to get it over with”. That might be an attractive proposition if you’re hanging around months to get a fine from the magistrates but not so much if acquittal is the only way to avoid years in prison.

Now there are two reasons why people plead Guilty. One is because they are genuinely “Sorry” and the other is because they want a lesser punishment. However, you can’t get the discount if you simply say “I can’t be asked, just knock a couple of years off”. You have to pretend to be sorry. Some people are actually sorry after committing crimes but most people are just sorry they got caught. With the Kill The Bill demonstration we know that no one who took part is actually sorry because no one went round the cop shop the next morning and asked to help clear up and then be put in jail for years. The bad news is The Judges also know this and they add “snivelling cowardly liar” to their already bad opinion of you when passing sentence. Worse they can reduce the nominal discount by saying that the evidence against you was overwhelming and you only pled guilty because you had no defence.

What discount might you get?

Nominally you can get up to a third off your sentence. There is a sliding scale from that to 10% if you change your mind “at the court door” as the trial is about to start. But if you examine sentencing statistics you will find that it doesn’t work out that way. Could it be that cunning Judges decide what you’re getting and then chose a starting point so that after discount you get what they always intended?

Officially there isn’t a system of plea bargaining as the Crown Prosecution Service are supposed to charge what they believe is in the public interest and has a better than fifty per cent chance of conviction. In practice, it happens all the time with people pleading to lesser crimes that fit the same facts. But in this case, people are pleading to the highest possible charge straight away. We doubt the CPS will back down in this case but no one should be pleading to something that matches the facts of section 4 with a normal sentence of community service.

An option for a defendant is to ask the Judge at Crown Court what you will get if you plead guilty. This is called a Goodyear indication. It’s a risky move as it gives away that you know you’re guilty but at least you know your options.

The one thing that will get you a substantial discount is “Turning Queens Evidence”. It doesn’t always mean giving evidence in court. Sometimes providing substantial help to the prosecution is enough to earn half to two thirds off which might get to the threshold of at which sentences can be suspended which is two years. With Riot convictions it will be clear that anyone who does not get an immediate custodial sentence has grassed as it is the only path to avoid jail.  On this, we can only say you don’t want to end up sitting on your own in the corner of the old age anarchos home muttering “I’m still glad I dobbed in all my mates back in ‘21”

The effect of guilty pleas goes beyond the effect on the person pleading. Almost everyone’s defences for the Kill The Bill demo will be self-defence, defence of others and preventing criminal assaults by the cops. The cops will not be saying “it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other” they will be lying themselves stupid to send as many protestors as they can to jail and cover up their own wrongdoing.

Solidarity is what can get people off and just to show this isn’t just bluster and we’re “following the science” there’s the Game Theory of, guess what? “Prisoners Dilemma” to back us up.

What should I do if I’ve pleaded guilty already?

All is not lost! Riot is an Indictable only offence and so you can only give an “indication of plea” at the Magistrates and the actual plea happens when you attend the Crown Court. Get in touch with one of our recommended solicitors straight away about changing the plea and fighting your case. “Vacating” a guilty plea once formally made is more difficult but not impossible. Again get advice pronto.

“Remember that our happiness depends on freedom and our freedom depends on courage” (Thucydides)

Andy Meinke


Photo: Keir Gravil, published under CC BY-NC 2.0.