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What is the Alford Plea?

By Toni Henthorn
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Alford plea or Alford doctrine is a form of guilty plea in a United States criminal court in which the defendant acknowledges that the prosecution probably has enough evidence to secure a conviction, but he does not specifically admit committing the crime. Used in state and local courts within the United States, the defendant claims innocence but agrees to accept a conviction in the criminal proceedings. In this way, a defendant can plead guilty to a lesser charge to obtain a more lenient sentence, while at the same time denying actual guilt. The Alford plea is a form of nolo contendere or "no contest" action. Upon obtaining a defendant's guilty plea, the court may immediately impose sentence as if the defendant were convicted of the crime.

With the name derived from the Latin phrase for "I do not desire to contend," the nolo contendere plea is a type of alternative plea in which the defendant neither acknowledges nor denies the charge levied against him. Although a nolo contendere plea has the same immediate consequences of a guilty plea, the long-term aftereffects differ. Courts in most cases do not require a nolo contendere defendant to allocute or talk about the specific facts of the crime. Unlike a guilty plea, the nolo contendere plea cannot be used against the defendant in a civil trial that relates to the same set of circumstances.

Alford pleas make up a small percentage of all plea bargains in the U.S, as some jurisdictions do not accept this type of plea bargain. The United States military courts do not allow military personnel to enter an Alford plea. Studies of prison inmate cases reveal that five percent of federal inmates and 17 percent of state inmates arrived there through Alford or nolo contendere pleas. These statistics reflect the relative differences between the state and federal courts in their willingness to accept alternative pleas.

First used in a 1973 case, North Carolina v. Alford, the Alford plea is named for the defendant, Henry Alford, who was charged with first-degree murder, which is a capital crime in North Carolina with the possibility of a death penalty. The defendant plead guilty to second-degree murder while maintaining his innocence as a means of avoiding a death sentence if he were to convicted of first-degree murder. Alford was ultimately sentenced to 30 years in prison. After multiple appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his sentence and ruled that for an Alford plea to be accepted, a competent lawyer must advise the defendant of the ramifications of any plea bargain that he is offered. The record must also strongly indicate guilt, even though the defendant claims innocence.

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