What Happens in Court When I Plead Guilty?

Now that you understand the plea bargaining process in Michigan and how to prepare for court when pleading guilty, let’s now consider exactly what happens in court when you plead guilty. During the plea taking process the court will be concerned with two things. First that you understand the constitutional rights that you are giving up by pleading guilty, and second, that you are freely, knowingly and understandingly admitting to and acknowledging that you have committed the crime to which you are pleading guilty.

To confirm that you are fully aware that by pleading guilty you are giving up all your constitutional rights associated with trial, the judge will ask you a series of questions almost all of which are answered by the single word “yes”. So, for example, the judge will ask you if you understand that you have an absolute right to trial, to which of course your answer is “yes.” The judge will ask you if you understand that pleading guilty you are giving up your right to remain silent, to which again, the answer is “yes.” There are sometimes a few “no” questions as well, such as “have any promises been made other than those stated on the record, to get you to plead guilty.” The answer to the question so certainty be “no.” Another no question might be “have there been any threats, compulsion or duress used to get you to plead guilty.” Again, the answer should definitely be no. Once the court is satisfied that you are freely knowingly and understandingly giving up or waiving all your constitutional trial rights, and that no promises or threats have been made to induce the plea, then the court will move on to a establishing the factual basis for plea.

What is a Factual Basis for a Plea?

During the plea taking process, to establish the factual basis, the judge will ask you to state in your own words what you did to make you think you are guilty of the crime. As indicated, each crime is made up of elements, and you need only admit to these elements, and nothing more. In fact, hearing you admit to these elements is all the judge will be interested in at this time. The reason you committed the offense, any exonerating or mitigating facts, your backstory, etc., are possibly relevant at sentencing but they are not relevant when you plead guilty.

For example, the elements for a Michigan Operating While Visibility Impaired Charge Are:

  1. That you operated a motor vehicle. Note that operate means to actual drive or to have actual physical control of the vehicle.
  2. That you operated the vehicle on a highway or other place open to the public or generally accessible to motor vehicles.
  3. That because of the amount of alcohol you drank, or drugs you consumed, or combination of both, you drove with “less ability than would an ordinary careful driver.”

You will not need to use this exact language, and the court, the prosecutor and your attorney will all be there to assist you in making a factual basis, if needed. The criminal defense attorneys at the Barone Defense Firm will assist you, before you plead guilty, in knowing exactly what to say. Commonly, to establish the factual basis, you need only say that before driving you drank enough alcohol to impair your driving. After you make this statement, the judge may follow up by asking additional questions, such as why you were stopped, what field sobriety tests were performed, etc. The court will also ask your lawyer’s permission to enter the chemical test results, such as the breath or blood test, into evidence as well.  This is called a stipulation.

Will I be Sentenced Immediately After I Plead Guilty?

No, sentencing will almost always take place several weeks after the plea hearing. Therefore, at the conclusion of the plea taking process, the court will schedule the matter for a new date for sentencing. It is very rare in an intoxicated driving case for sentencing to take place on the same day as the plea.  This is because in most instances the court will want you to be screened by the court probation department before passing sentence.  In fact, Michigan law requires that you have an alcohol screening test before you can be sentenced. Some courts will allow the use of a private substance use evaluation in the place of the court’s test, but Judges will want to have you screened by their probation department before sentencing.

For the court to complete this alcohol screening before sentencing, you will need to meet with a probation officer. During this meeting a probation officer will ask you a series of questions about your background and you will be asked to provide a statement in your own words of what occurred. The court will take the results of the NEEDS assessment as well the information learned from your interview, will use this information to fashion a recommendation for sentencing to the judge. This recommendation will be reduced to the form of a written document called presentence investigation and report. This PSIR will be made available to your lawyer at least 48 hours prior to the sentencing date. You will have an opportunity to review this report prior to sentencing so that you can have your lawyer discuss with the court at sentencing any changes that need to be made to the report.

You may find the following articles of interest:

  1. How to Prepare for Your Sentencing Hearing in Michigan
  2. How to Prepare for Your Meeting With The Court’s Probation Department (federal case).
  3. Purpose of the Federal Presentence Interview with a United States Probation Officer
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