Standards for Accepting Guilty Pleas to Misdemeanor Charges

The guilty plea-not the trial-is the most common manner of disposing of criminal cases in America. It has been estimated that 90 percent of all convictions and 95 percent of misdemeanor convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Various reasons have been advanced to explain this heavy reliance on the guilty plea. For example, it avoids the drain on judicial resources that would occur if all cases had to be tried. In addition, it eliminates the risks and uncertainties of trials and permits flexibility in sentencing. Because of the prevalence of guilty pleas, there must be procedural safeguards to insure that defendants are treated fairly. It has long been established that, in order to be valid, a guilty plea must be entered voluntarily and understandingly. Thus, the Supreme Court has held that a guilty plea is invalid if it is entered as the result of threats, intimidation, or other forms of coercion or as a result of ignorance or misapprehension. In Boykin v. Alabama, there were no allegations that the defendant’s guilty plea resulted from misapprehension or any form of coercion, but the Supreme Court struck down the plea involved because the record failed to show affirmatively that it was voluntarily and understandingly entered. The Court held that it could not presume from a silent record that a guilty plea was entered voluntarily and knowingly. It emphasized that the trial judge must employ the utmost solicitude in “canvassing the matter with the accused to make sure he has a full understanding of what the plea connotes and of its consequence[s].” This requirement is intended to provide an additional procedural safeguard for the accused and an adequate record for appellate review. The defendant in Boykin pleaded guilty to a serious felony and was sentenced to death. This article will examine the constitutional and policy considerations which suggest the application of Boykin to misdemeanors and will consider whether the procedures developed to implement the Boykin principle in felony cases should likewise be followed in misdemeanors.