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For the pygmy backswimmer genus, see Plea (insect).

In legal terms, a plea is simply an answer to a claim made by someone in a civil or criminal case under common law using the adversary system. Colloquially, a plea has come to mean the assertion by a criminal defendant at arraignment, or otherwise in response to a criminal charge, whether that person pleaded Guilty, Not Guilty, No Contest or Alford plea.

The concept of the plea is one of the major differences between criminal procedure under common law and procedure under the civil law system. Under common law, a plea of guilty by the defendant waives trial of the charged offences and the defendant may be sentenced immediately. This produces a system under American law known as plea bargaining.

In civil law jurisdictions, there is generally no concept of a plea of guilty. A confession by the defendant is treated like any other piece of evidence, and a full confession does not prevent a full trial from occurring or relieve the plaintiff(s) from its duty of presenting a case to the trial court.

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Peremptory pleas

These are pleas which claim that a case cannot proceed for some reason. They are so called because, rather than being an answer to the question of guilt or innocence, they are a claim that the matter of guilt or innocence should not be considered.

They are :

  • autrefois convict - where the defendant has already been convicted of the charge (and thus cannot be tried again)
  • autrefois acquit - where he has previously acquitted of the same charge (and hence cannot be tried again, under the doctrine of double jeopardy),
  • plea of pardon - where he has been pardoned for the offence.

United States

A defendant who enters a plea of guilty must do so, in the phraseology of a 1938 Supreme Court case, Johnson v. Zerbst, "knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently". The burden is on the prosecution to prove that all waivers of the defendant's rights complied with due process standards. Accordingly, in cases of all but the most minor offences, the court or the prosecution (depending upon local custom and the presiding judge's preference) will engage in a plea colloquy wherein they ask the defendant a series of rote questions about the defendant's knowledge of his rights and the voluntariness of the plea. Typically the hearing on the guilty plea is transcribed by a court reporter and the transcript is made a part of the permanent record of the case in order to preserve the conviction's validity from being challenged at some future time.

Other special pleas used in criminal cases include the plea of mental incompetence, challenging the jurisdiction of the court over the defendant's person, the plea in bar, attacking the jurisdiction of the court over the crime charged, and the plea in abatement, which is used to address procedural errors in bringing the charges against the defendant, not apparent on the "face" of the indictment or other charging instrument. Special pleas in federal criminal cases have been abolished, and defences formerly raised by special plea are now raised by motion to dismiss.

In United States v. Binion, malingering or feigning illness during a competency evaluation was held to be obstruction of justice and led to an enhanced sentence. Although the defendant had pleaded guilty, he was not awarded a reduction in sentence because the feigned illness was considered to mean that he was not accepting responsibility for his illegal behavior.[1]

English law

Under English law, there is an additional peremptory plea, that of special liability to repair a road or bridge. Under English law, local government authorities have the legal obligation to repair roads or bridges; but, in certain circumstances, the responsibility lies with a landowner instead. The local government authority, charged with a failure to repair a road or bridge, can allege that the responsibility lies with a landowner; at which point, the proceedings against them will be suspended, and proceedings commenced against the landowner they allege to have the responsibility; but if the landowner is found not to be responsible, then the matter may be recommenced against the local government authority. (see R. v. Sutton, Court of King's Bench, 1833)

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