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Pleading Guilty in Toronto, Ontario

Many individuals charged with a criminal offence in Toronto ultimately instruct their lawyer to enter a plea of guilty on one of all of the charges they face. In fact, most cases result in a plea of guilty. For some defendants, the benefits of pleading guilty outweigh the risks and disadvantages of taking the matter to trial. 

Benefits of Pleading Guilty

The advantages of pleading guilty relatively early can include:

1) the crown asking for a lesser sentence;
2) the crown dropping certain charges it would have otherwise proceed with;
3) the crown agreeing to a lesser included offence;
4) minimizing legal fees for the accused;
5) getting the matter over with as quickly as possible;
6) avoiding lengthy times spent on a criminal undertaking or in jail while awaiting a trial date

Guilty Plea may = Lesser Sentence

If an offender admits responsibility early on, this is a mitigating factor in sentencing. A mitigating factor is one that benefits the offender and leads to a lesser sentence.

Some offenders take the opportunity to plead guilty as soon as possible for this reason. Quick guilty pleas are considered a mitigating factor primarily for two reasons:

1) they demonstrate the offender has taken the first step in his rehabilitation (admitting responsibility);

2) they use less prosecution resources.

It is the job of the defendant's lawyer to secure the best possible deal for their client in exchange for them pleading guilty.

Guilty plea rejected by judge

While guilty pleas are usually encouraged by crown prosecutors, judges can be reluctant to accept them if the accused is self represented.

If a defendant does not have a lawyer, there is a concern that he may lack an appropriate understanding of the charges and evidence to make an informed decision regarding his guilty plea.

When a self represented accused wishes to plead guilty, the judge will normally carefully question the accused to ensure that the accused admits the facts of the offense. Accused individuals will commonly state that they “didn’t do it”, yet wish to plead guilty anyway. This will invariably lead to the judge refusing to accept the plea of guilty.

In these instances, the judge will normally adjourn the matter to give the accused time to get a lawyer, or enter a plea of not guilty and set the matter down for trial.

In short: You cannot say in court that you are innocent, or deny critical elements of the offense, and still plead guilty. If you wish to plead guilty, you have to be prepared to admit that you committed the crime or the judge will likely deny your guilty plea.

Accused individuals being held in jail without bail may be eager to plead guilty because they do not wish to remain in jail while awaiting a trial. Further, they may have reached an agreement with the prosecution about sentencing. Having their guilty plea rejected because they make statements in court denying elements of the offense can thus cause major problems for people.

In Canada, it is ultimately the judge’s decision as to whether or not a guilty plea is entered (not the accused).

Practical reason to plead guilty: the undertaking is similar to probation.

As many accused already have criminal records and are likely facing a term of probation upon conviction, it doesn’t necessarily make practical sense to await trial on an undertaking that contains the same restrictions on their freedoms as a probation order would.

The problem many accused face is that they wind up being placed on undertakings for charges that have conditions that are practically the same as a probation order that will be the result of a conviction.

For individuals who already have a criminal record, this leaves very little incentive to plead not guilty.

For example: A man is charged with minor threats charge and placed on an undertaking with conditions to avoid contact with victim, keep the peace and be of good behaviour, and avoid alcohol and drugs.

If he pleads not guilty, he will have to wait one year for trial. His lawyer talks to the prosecution who is offering one year probation with the same conditions of the undertaking in exchange for a guilty plea.

In practical terms, if the accused pleads not guilty, he still has to abide by the undertaking for a year anyway which is holds the same restrictions as the sentence he would likely get for a guilty plea. A year from now, he would still face potentially a year of probation (on top of the year he already waited on the undertaking with the same conditions) whereas if he pleads guilty it would be all over in a year. Further, he also risks a worse penalty upon a guilty conviction after going through a trial than a year of probation.

Practically speaking, being charged with a crime and being placed on an undertaking usually carries virtually the same restrictions as a probationary sentence would. In addition, if the client is paying a lawyer to represent them, it will cost them much more money to plead not guilty and go to trial.

Is it worth it just to plead guilty and take probation?

Given the practical considerations of the probation order being similar to the undertaking anyway, many accused are faced with the difficult decision of whether to plead guilty or not.

Some important factors to consider include:

1) Whether the accused already has a criminal record or not.

If the accused does not already have a criminal record, it may make more sense to fight the charge as accumulating a criminal record will have a negative impact on their employability and travel options.

2) Whether the accused believes they were unjustly accused.

Admitting responsibility for a crime that someone did not commit is morally wrong.

3) Convictions can impact sentencing in future matters if charged again.

The conviction will be an aggravating factor in support of a harsher sentence if the accused is ever charged again.

4) The financial cost of awaiting trial and proceeding with a trial.

The accused should consider his eligibility for legal aid and overall financial situation.

5) Whether the Crown offers a deal that makes it worth it.

Sometimes the Crown will agree to a conditional or absolute discharge, which allows the accused to avoid a criminal record.

For more information, please see our article on criminal undertakings.

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