Exactly how a Plea is Taken in Court for Michigan Criminal and DUI Cases

Most people understand what it means to plead guilty to a criminal offense. It is an admission of guilt.  In practice, a person will often wind up pleading to a lesser charge as the result of a negotiated plea-bargain (more on that later). With the exception of those people who have personally done it, however, few know how a plea actually goes down in criminal and DUI cases. In this article, we’re going to look at EXACTLY how that happens. First, we’ll do a quick, general examination of pleas and plea bargains. Then, we’ll see, word for word, what actually happens when a plea is taken in court.

How a plea is taken in courtThere are legal reasons for why a plea is taken the way it is. A person can’t just walk into court and say “Guilty” to some charge or other. Before a Judge can accept a plea, it must be shown that the person is of clear and sound mind, and is proceeding of his or her own free will. In addition, the court must also find that there is what’s called a “factual basis” for the underlying plea. This means a person must be able to tell the Judge what he or she did that actually makes him or her guilty.

These technicalities are designed to prevent a person from taking the blame for someone else, or for something he or she really didn’t do. Also, the court needs to make sure nobody gets pushed into a plea by some outside pressure. In other words, the courts needs to be confident that any plea is solid. By asking the questions set forth below, the courts ensure a person cannot come back later and say something like he or she only pled because his or her lawyer instructed them to do so.

As mentioned above, a lot of pleas are the result of a plea bargain. A plea bargain occurs when the defense lawyer negotiates with the prosecutor to drop the original charge made against a person in exchange admission of guilt to some offense that’s less serious. The reduction to a lesser offense is the bargain.

In addition to plea bargains, there can also be sentence bargains. Sometimes, both plea and sentence bargains can happen together. Sentence bargains (sometimes called sentence agreements) are a deep subject in their own right, so for now we’ll simply point out that it is some kind of “deal” for a more lenient or specific outcome to the case. Of course, any possible sentence can be affected by a plea bargain, as well, so there is often interaction between these 2 things.

The simple fact is that most criminal and DUI cases are resolved through plea negotiations. We’ll use a DUI case as our example from this point forward, given that it is one of the most common criminal charges, at least in the Michigan court system. After someone is arrested for drunk driving (the actual term in Michigan is “Operating While Intoxicated” or “OWI”), they’ll often go online as soon as they can to find out what kind of penalties they’re facing.

Often, a DUI lawyer may be able to get a break by negotiating a plea-bargain for his or her client. Given that possibility, it’s really a waste of time (and rather stressful) for someone to freak out over a drunk driving charge that may be dismissed as part of a deal for him or to plead to something less serious. In the DUI world, for example, something like a High BAC charge (Operating While Intoxicated with a BAC of .17 or greater) can often be worked down to a less serious offense that carries far less severe penalties.

In other words, depending on the circumstances (including the reliability of the evidence and the location of the case), an otherwise solid High BAC charge can often be negotiated down to a simple OWI, or, in certain cases, even further, to the least serious DUI charge of OWVI, or Operating While Visibly Impaired (Impaired Driving).

Before looking at how a typical DUI plea is taken in court, we need to understand the full meaning of the term “conviction.” Remember, we’re using a DUI case as our example, but the whole plea process is basically the same no matter what charge a person is facing. A conviction means that a person is either found guilty of or pleads guilty to a criminal offense (and a DUI is, after all, a criminal offense).

Thus, if Bank Robber Bob is arrested and goes to trial for bank robbery, and is found guilty, that’s a conviction. That’s what will go on his record. Everyone understands that.

However, imagine that Tina Tippler is arrested for a High BAC charge, but her lawyer manages to negotiate a plea bargain from that offense down to the least serious DUI charge of Impaired Driving. By pleading guilty to that lesser offense, Tina will ultimately stand convicted of Impaired Driving, not the High BAC offense that was originally charged against her.

Now, let’s look at how a typical plea is actually handled in a Michigan court. The process itself is rather straightforward. The person is sworn-in, and then the Judge will read the terms of the plea deal aloud to make sure everyone is agreement. The Judge must make sure that, among other things, the person understands and knowingly waives certain of his or her legal rights, and understands the maximum penalties that can be imposed under the law for the offense to which he or she is pleading guilty.

What follows is a very accurate (although hypothetical) example of how this goes down in a typical DUI case:

Judge: This is the case of the City of Gotham versus Tina Tippler. Counsel, would you and your client state your names for the record, please?

Lawyer: Yes, good morning your honor, Larry the Lawyer on behalf of Tina the Tippler.

Tina: My name is Tina Tippler.

Judge: What is your address, Ms. Tippler?

Tina: 12345 Elm Street, Gotham, Michigan, 48123

Judge: Okay, Ms. Tippler, do you understand what’s happening here today? Your lawyer has negotiated a plea bargain wherein the original charge of Operating While Intoxicated will be dismissed in exchange for your plea of guilty to the lesser charge of Operating While Visibly Impaired. Is that your understanding?

[In cases where there is no plea bargain, or there is any other kind of agreement, like a sentence agreement, the Judge will spell that out in detail]

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Okay. Ms. Tippler, before I can accept your plea, I have to know that you are voluntarily waiving certain rights. You have read and signed the Advice of RIghts form I am now holding up for you see, correct?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: And did you and your lawyer go over the rights on that form?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Okay, your signature on the bottom of that form indicates that you understand and waive the following:

    • You have the right to a trial. That can be a trial with a jury, or if you choose, and the prosecutor and the court agrees, you can have a trial without a jury
    • You have the right to be presumed innocent, and, if you have a trial, to have the prosecutor prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
    • You have the right to an attorney, and if you couldn’t afford one, to have the court appoint one for you.
    • You have the right to confront and cross examine the witnesses against you, and to have your attorney question them on your behalf.
    • You have the right to call witnesses on your own behalf, and to use to court’s subpoena power to compel any witnesses you may have to come to court and testify for you.
    • If the court accepts your plea, a conviction for the charge of Operating While Visibly Impaired will go upon your record.
    • Operating While Visibly Impaired is a misdemeanor offense. It carries a maximum potential penalty of up to 93 days in jail and a maximum fine of up to $300, plus costs. In addition, 4 points will go on your driving record, and the Secretary of State will take action against your license, do you understand all that?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Okay; to the charge of Operating While Visibly Impaired, how do you plead?

Tina: Guilty.

Judge: Is it your own choice to plead guilty?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Has anyone promised you anything other than the plea bargain stated here in order to get you plead guilty?

Tina: No, Your Honor.

Judge: Has anyone told you that the court will go easy on you if you plead guilty?

Tina: No, Your Honor.

Judge: Has anyone used any duress, or threatened you in any way in order to get you to plead guilty?

Tina: No, Your Honor.

Judge: Are you pleading guilty freely and voluntarily, because you are, in fact, guilty?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Do you understand that this plea will result in a conviction upon your record, and that any appeal from it is by leave, not by right, meaning that you can ask the circuit court to look at it, but you have no absolute right to an appeal based upon your plea?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor

Judge: Okay, tell me what it is you did on May 31, 2023, that makes you believe you’re guilty.

Tina: Well, I had been at the bar with some friends, and I left to drive home and got pulled over.

Judge: On that day, did you consume alcohol?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Okay; how much alcohol did you consume, and over what period of time.

Tina: I’d say about 6 or 7 mixed drinks over about 4 hours or so.

Judge: Ms. Tippler, do you believe that your consumption of alcohol that night visibly impaired your ability to operate your vehicle in a normal manner?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Did you take a breath [or blood] test after being arrested?

Tina: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Do you know the results?

Tina: I think it was one-point-six (1.6), or point-one-six (.16), I’m not sure….

Judge: Counsel, do you have the results?

Lawyer: Yes, Your Honor. The results were point-one-five (.15).

Judge: Point-one-five (.15)?

Lawyer: Yes, Your Honor.

Judge: Okay. Ms. Tippler, I’m going to accept your plea and find that it was made freely and knowingly. You and your lawyer will go out to the front counter where you will get set up with 2 dates: The first is for a screening with our probation department, and the second is your sentencing date when you and your lawyer will return here together. Any questions?

[In certain courts, the date for sentencing is handed out right in the courtroom. Also, the person can be instructed to report directly to the probation department to set up his or her probation screening. In some cases, he or she may simply be told that probation will reach out directly to him or her to set that up. Alternatively, a Judge may set the sentencing date right then and there, before the parties leave. The exact process, while largely the same, does vary a bit from court to court.]

Tina: No, sir.

Lawyer: No. Thank you Your Honor.

That’s it. Once the plea has been taken, the proceeding is over.

Of course, the precise language can be a bit different depending on the nature of the case (for example, if a case is a felony being handled in the circuit court, rather than a misdemeanor in the district court.) However, in terms of the actual plea, what was “transcribed” above is pretty much exactly how it plays out everywhere in Michigan.

As with everything about the law, we could certainly keep digging into this and analyzing it forever. However, as far as a simple and accurate explanation of how a plea is taken in court, what we’ve covered here is pretty much exactly what happens.

If you’re facing a criminal or DUI charge and looking for a lawyer, be a wise consumer and read around. Pay attention to how different lawyers break down the criminal and/or DUI process, and how they explain their various approaches to it.

This blog is a great place to start. It is fully searchable and updated weekly with new, original content. To-date, I have written and published more than 600 articles in the DUI section, and more than 200 in the criminal section. The reader can find more useful information here than anywhere, but don’t take my word for it – check for yourself.

When you’ve done enough reading, start calling around. You can learn a lot by speaking with a live person. If your case is pending anywhere in the Metro-Detroit area (meaning in the courts of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, or the surrounding counties), make sure you give us a ring, as well.

All of our consultations are free, confidential, and done over the phone, right when you call. My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer your questions and explain things. We’ll even be happy to compare notes with anything some other lawyer has told you.

We can be reached Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (EST) at either 248-986-9700, or 586-465-1980.

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