What is a Not Guilty Plea?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A not guilty plea is one of three possible answers a defendant can provide to a criminal charge. When accused of a criminal charge, such as robbery, the court will ask the defendant how he or she pleads. The defendant can plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest, also called nolo contendre. The plea allows the court to decide how to proceed with the trial. If a defendant doesn't enter a plea at all, whether it is because he or she doesn't want to respond to the charges or because he or she failed to appear, the court will enter a not-guilty plea on the defendant's behalf. While procedure can vary among jurisdictions, most often, a plea of not guilty will be followed by efforts to arrange a jury trial, including setting a court date.

A person being charged with a crime may choose to plea not guilty.
A person being charged with a crime may choose to plea not guilty.

A defendant who enters a not guilty plea is refuting the criminal charges that have been brought against him or her. There are many reasons a defendant may choose to enter a plea of not guilty; legal strategy often influences the plea that a defendant may make. An innocent defendant may choose to make this plea in order to have the opportunity to have his or her case tried before a jury, as a guilty plea will not go to trial. A guilty defendant may enter a not guilty plea as well, sometimes for the reason that he or she protests the type of charge being brought.

If a person acted out of a reasonable belief that his or her life was in danger, the incident may be ruled as self defense.
If a person acted out of a reasonable belief that his or her life was in danger, the incident may be ruled as self defense.

For example, the general crime of murder has several different types of charges, such as first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter. The differences between these charges have to do with the mental state of the criminal and circumstances around the crime. In addition, the type of charge carries with it different general sentences. For example, first degree murder, generally has a longer and more sever sentence than manslaughter. So, a defendant who may have unintentionally killed someone may plead not guilty to a first degree murder charge because he or she did not have the intent to kill.

Some defendants plead not guilty due to insanity.
Some defendants plead not guilty due to insanity.

Defendants may also choose to enter not guilty pleas because they have a defense to the criminal charge. One type of defense is the insanity defense. If the accused can prove that he or she was insane when the crime was committed, he or she may receive a reduced sentence or avoid sentencing altogether. Jurisdictions vary in how they address insanity defenses.

Obviously, anyone who contests an accusation and wants their day in court will enter a plea of not guilty regardless of whether or not they are guilty. Many convicted criminals have pled not guilty, even though evidence showed they committed the crime.

A person can revoke a not guilty plea during the course of a trial. In fact, this is sometimes why a defendant may choose to enter a plea of not guilty at first. Changing pleas of guilt and no contest are often looked at with prejudice. Changes to not guilty pleas often occur when a plea bargain is made. The defendant may change a not guilty plea to a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser charge associated with a lighter sentence. The prosecution may offer plea bargains for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the prosecution will reduce or drop a charge if the defendant, in exchange, provides the government with proof of another person's guilt to another crime.

A defendant may change a not guilty plea to a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser charge associated with a lighter sentence.
A defendant may change a not guilty plea to a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser charge associated with a lighter sentence.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


What if you miss a criminal court date because of life altering reason, like you got in a car accident and they rushed you to the hospital. That is a valid excuse not to be in court isn't it? I mean, what will happen will they reverse the consequences for an accused for a second time for an OWI?


My son has to go to court on fraudulently obtained food and lodging in January. He turns 18 years old a couple of days after the court date. If we plead guilty, will it be for a young offender or if we decided to fight it and the trial date is after his birthday, will he be charged as a adult if we lose?


My friend is in court and his ex made up a lot of stuff saying he beat her up and all, which he did not. But she has fake documents and is unstable. My friend's solicitor wants him to plead guilty even though he didn't do any of the stuff she said. He does not want to plead guilty. What should he do?

He has a son with his ex and a new girlfriend for the past year. His ex only started this as he has moved on from her like and she does not like that at all. She has dropped loads of stuff that she said he did but did not, and wasn't brought to court.


Recently, a cop came into my house to follow up on an investigation and he came into the house without a warrant searched and seized property that was not in the open. No one let him in. He let himself in, but he confiscated a box with lights in it and in a separate room they found porn magazines and skunk magazines. They also destroyed some property during the search. What can I do to defend myself?


I was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia because it was at a scene when a cop came up looking for a runaway. We never knew the pipe was there but we were near it and so they gave me and my friends all a charge for drug paraphernalia. What should I do?


i am getting charged with assault. i pleaded not guilty. should i change it and say I'm guilty?


my 16 year old (passenger) was ticketed with mj and para. The cop said if he'd been an adult, he would have let him go. Because he was a minor, he had to write something up. Yes he is pleading not guilty. Hopefully we can do this without paying for an attorney.


i was caught while shoplifting. will that record remain in my record? Please help me I am a student.


Never ever plead guilty. because it will affect your record and also the if you severe punishment like jail/rehab it will be recorded on your profile, for life. Guilty = yes, I do accept the punishment, Not Guilty = No I don't accept. (There will be retrial again until the judge is happy)


I was charged with 40 hours community service and 12 months probation for shoplifting in a mall. I pled guilty because i have a clean record but the court still gave me such sentence, so to me, it's advisable to plead guilty to anything.


hi. i am being done for fraud and i have paid it all back. so i am guilty, but my solicitor wants me to do a no plea and its at magistrates court and she wants it to go to crown court. y is this? i am very confused and need help and advice.


Hello I am being charged with running a stop sign. I entered a plea of not guilty, but still i am very confused. I was out in the state of Texas on business and this is were i got the ticket. In Williamson County the officer that gave me the ticket. Made some obvious mistakes on it; he put the wrong model when it is right next to my license plate. I did not run the stop. I want to know what you think and if their are any court fees that i need to pay to go to court. One more thing, are their any laws regarding how far away he could be to make a good decision? Bc he was pretty far.... please help thank you.



I was given a speeding ticket for going 100mph, but I was actually doing approx. 95mph. The officer said it was tracked with air radar. Should I contest this, plea not guilty or no contest? I'm confused since this is my first time. I know I was going fast but I don't know how to fight the fact about the air radar. Any thoughts/advice? Thank you.


my kid was charged with "knowingly used or possessed with purpose to use drug paraphernalia, to wit: a glass pipe:

It was laying in the floor of the car he was riding in, but he had not touched or used it, but was still charged. There were 3 other kids in the car. Should he plead not guilty?


Go to the court.


Hi I was charge with petite theft, shoplifting at a super market I have to go to court this month what should I do?

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