What Happens at a Plea Hearing: All You Need to Know

Updated May 24, 2024
7 min read
What Happens at a Plea Hearing

A plea hearing is a court proceeding during which the justice system gives an individual (defendant) a chance to respond to the charges against them. During the plea hearing, the defendant makes a statement (plea) declaring their guilt or innocence either in the form of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).

In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about a plea hearing: what is a plea hearing, what happens in a plea hearing, the defendant’s rights, a change of plea hearing, a plea bargain, plea agreements, and much more.

What Is a Plea Hearing in a Criminal Case?

As per the American legal system, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The prosecution must present enough evidence that’s so convincing that a reasonable person could not doubt the defendant’s guilt. If the prosecution fails to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant is entitled to an acquittal, and they will be found not guilty.

However, if the prosecution presents sufficient evidence during a pre-trial, the defendant can still enter a guilty plea instead of going to trial.

The plea hearing meaning entails that the defendant responds to the criminal charges against them and enters a plea. They could respond to not guilty, meaning they do not admit to committing the crime, or of nolo contendere (no contest), where the offender accepts conviction but does not admit guilt.

What Happens at a Plea Hearing?

At a plea hearing, the defendant will sit in front of the judge in the courts with their defense attorney. The judge will then explain the criminal charges against the defendant and the potential sentences and penalties associated with the offense. During court proceedings, they’ll also explain three options for the defendant: to plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere for the charges. The defendant’s trial rights will then be presented, including:

  1. The right to a trial in front of a jury;

  2. The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt;

  3. The right to have witnesses appear at trial both for and against the defendant;

  4. The right to remain silent when at trial;

  5. The right to testify at trial if the defendant wishes to do so.

How long between guilty plea and sentencing?

The length of time between a guilty plea and sentencing can vary depending on several factors, such as the facts and complexity of the case, the court’s schedule, and the jurisdiction. In some cases, the defendant may be sentenced immediately after entering a guilty plea, while in other instances, sentencing may be delayed for several weeks or even months.

However, states may have rules that require that the defendant be sentenced within a certain number of days or weeks after entering a guilty plea. A few examples of state sentencing timelines include:

  • In New York, the defendant must be sentenced within 35 days of entering a guilty plea.

  • In Utah, a guilty plea must be followed by a sentence 45 days later.

  • In Minnesota, three days following a guilty plea, the court must schedule a sentencing hearing.

  • In Michigan, the defendant must receive a punishment within 30 days of entering a guilty plea.

But, in other circumstances, the court could require more time to compile the necessary evidence to decide on the best punishment, such as a pre-sentence investigation report or victim impact statements.

What happens in a sentencing hearing?

During the sentencing hearing, the court determines the penalty for the guilty party, which may include a monetary fine, jail time, or a combination of both. See what happens at a plea hearing on the judge’s end:

  • Reviewing a pre-sentence report prepared by a probation officer. The report captures the defendant’s background that can also be filed in an affidavit, criminal history, and other information relevant to the sentencing;

  • Considering arguments from the prosecutor and defense attorney; and

  • Evaluating sentencing guidelines to establish the minimum jail or prison sentence and alternatives, such as a suspended sentence or probation.

However, in cases where a sentencing agreement or plea bargain is in place, the judge may bypass the sentencing hearing and forgo a pre-sentence report.

Plea Hearing vs. Plea Bargain

A plea hearing and a plea bargain involve a defendant entering a plea in criminal procedure. To best understand the difference between the two, review the table below.

Plea Hearing
  • Definition: A court hearing where the defendant is formally charged and responds to criminal charges by entering a plea.
  • Purpose: To formally charge the defendant and document their response to the charges.
  • Participants: Judge, attorneys, and defendant.
  • Timing: Happens after a judge determines probable cause, the defendant may be responsible for a crime, and before the case is sent to trial.
  • Outcome: The defendant pleads guilty or not guilty or enters a no-contest plea.
  • Consequences: Depending on the plea, the defendant may be sentenced during a plea sentencing hearing, or the case may go to trial.
  • Rights: The defendant maintains their right, such as their right to trial by jury, right to appeal, right to a speedy trial, right to remain silent, or the right to confront witnesses.
Plea Bargain
  • Definition: A process through which the defendant and the prosecution discuss the charges and the evidence against the defendant.
  • Purpose: Negotiations between the two resolve the case without trial and potentially reduce the defendant’s sentence.
  • Participants: Judge, attorney, defendant, and prosecution.
  • Timing: At any point before or during the trial.
  • Outcome: Outlines the charges or charges to which the defendant pleads guilty, the sentence, and concessions or conditions arranged by the prosecution.
  • Consequences: Sentencing, according to the terms of the plea agreement.
  • Rights: The defendant may waive their right to trial by jury, the right to remain silent, the right to an appeal, the right to a speedy trial, or the right to confront witnesses in exchange for the plea bargain.

Exploring Plea Options

The justice system requires that a defendant decides how they will respond to the charges against them. Such a response is called a plea. There are three main plea options: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. Each plea option has its implications and potential consequences.


A defendant who enters a guilty plea in court admits committing a crime. A guilty plea is often entered as part of plea bargaining, in which the offender acknowledges guilt in exchange for a lighter punishment or other leniencies. In some cases, a defendant may voluntarily enter a guilty plea without reaching a deal with the prosecution.

The defendant acknowledges the accusations against them and waives their right to a trial when they enter a guilty plea. The plea frequently resolves the legal difficulties and case facts more quickly.

No contest

A no contest plea, known as nolo contendere, means “I do not wish to contend.” It differs from a guilty plea because the defendant does not admit guilt but accepts the punishment. Defendants often use this plea in cases where they may face a civil lawsuit related to the criminal charge. Not admitting guilt gives them a better chance of defending themselves in a civil case.

Like a guilty plea, a no-contest plea can be part of a plea bargain. The prosecution may agree to reduce the charges or recommend a lighter sentence in exchange for the defendant’s plea.

Not guilty

A defendant who enters a not guilty plea in court admits that they did not commit the crime. The prosecution must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial if the defendant files a not-guilty plea.

In some cases, pleading not guilty does not imply that the person denies doing the offense. They might enter the plea to exercise their right to a trial or because they don’t think the prosecution can successfully establish their case.

Plea Hearings for Misdemeanor vs. Felony Offenses

There are several steps in the justice system before a plea hearing. These are:

  • Arrest — Happens when a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed a crime.

  • Booking — After arrest, the officer presents the individual to their law enforcement agency for booking, records their personal information, and takes fingerprints and photographs.

After booking, the answer to the question “can you go to jail at a plea hearing?” depends on the defendant’s alleged crime.

Though jurisdictions classify crimes differently, they all consider intent, severity, and harm to the victim to determine if the offenses are misdemeanors or felony cases. Some of the general differences in plea hearings between these two are as follows.

  • Plea options: Guilty, not guilty, no contest.
  • Plea hearing: May take a plea during arraignment, or an initial court appearance.
  • Consequences: If the defendant enters a guilty or no contest plea, the judge may impose a sentence immediately or set a later date for sentencing. Penalties may include jail time, community service, or fines.
  • Plea options: Guilty, not guilty, and in some cases, not guilty because of insanity.
  • Plea hearing: May take place on a day separate from the arraignment and after a preliminary hearing. During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution provides evidence of why they believe the defendant committed a crime (probable cause).
  • Consequences: If the defendant enters a guilty plea, the judge may order a pre-sentence investigation to determine the appropriate sentence. The sentencing may take place on a different date. Penalties may include significant jail time or fines.

What happens at a felony plea hearing is that, in some cases, the prosecution and defense may negotiate a plea agreement that the judge may accept or reject. The plea hearing may occur on a different date if the judge agrees with the plea agreement.

In federal court, a preliminary hearing is within 14 days of the initial appearance if the defendant is in jail or 21 days if they are out on bail. However, if the crime falls under state law, the timeline depends on the specific laws for each jurisdiction. At this plea hearing, there is the potential for the case to be dismissed unless the prosecution brings forward enough probable cause. It is like a mini-trial before the lengthy and typically more expensive trial commences.

After the Plea Hearing

After a plea hearing, several things can happen depending on the case’s circumstances and the plea’s outcome, as follows.

  1. In either misdemeanor cases or a felony, if the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will proceed to pretrial hearings, including motions to dismiss, motions to suppress evidence, or other procedural matters.

  2. For a misdemeanor, the case will proceed to sentence if the defendant pleads guilty or has no contest and the judge accepts the plea. Depending on the plea agreement’s terms, a judge may sentence the defendant immediately or later.

  3. In a misdemeanor, the case may proceed to trial if the defendant pleads guilty or has no contest, but the judge rejects the plea.

  4. For a felony offense, if a defendant pleads guilty, the matter will move to a sentencing hearing, during which the judge will consider a pre-sentence report and any other factors determining the nature of the defendant’s punishment.

  5. Suppose the plea agreement for either a misdemeanor or felony includes a provision for diversion or probation programs. In that case, the law may require the defendant to comply with specific conditions or requirements to avoid a conviction.


Although a plea hearing may appear straightforward, it is a critical choice that could significantly impact the defendant. Knowing what a plea hearing is is crucial because it allows the accused to refute the charges brought against them. Defendants must speak with their attorney before entering a plea, even though the court will ensure they understand the plea hearing procedure.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a plea hearing and a trial?

A plea hearing is an initial stage in a criminal case where the defendant is formally informed of the charges and given the opportunity to enter a plea. This is the point where the defendant can choose to plead guilty, not guilty, or, in certain circumstances, no contest. Entering a guilty plea often leads to the case being resolved without proceeding to trial, as it may result in sentencing or a negotiated plea agreement. During a plea hearing, negotiations, plea bargains, and the opportunity for the defendant to assert defenses may take place. 

In contrast, a trial is a formal legal proceeding where the prosecution and defense present evidence, arguments, and witnesses to a judge or jury. Trials occur when the defendant pleads not guilty during the plea hearing or when a plea agreement cannot be reached. The purpose of a trial is to determine the defendant's guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented. The prosecution is responsible for proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense has the opportunity to challenge the evidence and present their case. The trial process ensures a fair and comprehensive examination of the facts before a final verdict is reached.

Can I change my plea after a plea hearing?

It depends on the circumstances and the stage of the case. Changing a plea may be more difficult once it has been entered in court and accepted by the judge, but if there is sufficient reason for the change, the court will consider it. Further, the terms of a plea may limit a defendant’s ability to change a plea.

What happens if I refuse to accept a plea bargain?

If you refuse to accept a plea bargain, your case will usually proceed to trial. During the trial, the prosecution will provide evidence and witnesses to prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt as your attorney presents your defense countering the evidence and witness statements.