In 1970, the United States Supreme Court decided in North Carolina v. Alford that an express admission of guilt is not a constitutional requisite to the imposition of a criminal penalty. An individual accused of a crime may voluntarily, knowingly and understandingly consent to the imposition of a prison sentence even if he is unwilling or unable to admit his participation in the acts constituting the crime.
The court held that the constitution allowed trial courts to accept such a plea, even where procedural rules require “a sufficient factual basis” to justify the court’s acceptance of a plea when a defendant still claims innocence, but left room for the trial court’s discretion in accepting such a plea by stating, “A criminal defendant does not have an absolute right under the [c]onstitution to have his guilty plea accepted by the court [but] … a trial judge [has] discretion to ‘refuse to accept a plea of guilty.’” The Court did not find it necessary to delineate the scope of that discretion and left it to developing case law.
Since Alford, 47 states, together with lower federal courts, have accepted the rationale for such pleas (sometimes called best-interests pleas) and have allowed government and defense attorneys to negotiate a plea agreement under which certain counts of an indictment will be dismissed in return for a voluntary plea by defendant, after full explanation of the agreement and its consequence of agreed prison time on one or more remaining counts, even though the defendant protests innocence on those charges.
Only Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey have forbidden trial courts from accepting Alford pleas after negotiations leading to a voluntary plea which disputes actual guilt. In 2009, a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court held, in State v. Taccetta, “The notion that a defendant can enter a plea of guilty, while maintaining his innocence, is foreign to our state jurisprudence.” The court, in a vigorous defense of New Jersey’s position, put forth: “Court-sanctioned perjury is not a permissible basis for the entry of a plea in this State.”
The court also referenced Rule 3:9-2, which requires that a factual basis be articulated for a trial judge to accept a guilty plea — a requirement found in virtually all states’ criminal procedure rules, including those which accept Alford pleas. Despite the great weight of authority elsewhere, our court has declined “to be complicit in accepting a guilty plea from a defendant protesting his innocence,” because it would tear “at the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
An Alford plea requires courts to weigh the interest of defendants, including innocent defendants, who want to avoid the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence on conviction of serious charges to which they deny guilt, by trading dismissal of those serious charges for a plea to other lesser offenses as to which they also deny guilt. This occurs only upon agreement between prosecutor and defense attorney, with final determination resting within the sound exercise of the trial court’s discretion. The argument against the Alford principal of consensual plea bargaining, where the defendant is fully informed of all options and consequences and then voluntarily agrees to the bargain, is succinctly set forth by our court in State v. Tacceta as quoted above.
The importance of the issues involved, and the impact of their practical application, argues strongly for full consideration and discussion of the Alford issue by the Supreme Court Criminal Practice Committee. We urge it to undertake a thorough analysis of the competing policy objectives, with a final recommendation to the court to effect the ends which best fulfill the ideals of protection of individual interests and the efficient and economic administration of the courts.