A plea transcript is a three or four page document used when the State and the defendant have agreed upon a plea. The transcript includes a list of approximately 30 questions which the Defendant must answer to the satisfaction of the judge.
These questions include questions about the mental acuity of the defendant, his ability to hear and understand the judge, his voluntariness in terms of taking the plea, and a description of the plea agreement.
In all cases, the Defendant will have gone over and answered these questions in private with his lawyer who will explain all aspects of the plea transcript with the Defendant. This is to ensure that Defendant understands what is happening to him, since the Defendant is likely to be very nervous in front of a judge.
In North Carolina, a plea transcript can include two kinds of pleas: a standard plea or an Alford plea. The transcript also provides for a nolo contendre plea, but this type of plea is virtually never used.
In a standard plea, the person admits to his personal guilt in the crime.
In an Alford plea, the person agrees to accept the plea, but denies his personal guilt. Essentially, a person taking an Alford plea is saying that while he denies he committed the crime, he recognizes that a jury might find him guilty, and so he’d prefer to take the plea agreement than risk a longer jail sentence or harsher punishment from a guilty plea.
A defendant does not have a right to an Alford plea. The District Attorney must accept the Alford plea in order for it to be proposed to the judge.
A plea transcript may also include very specific sentencing agreements, which essentially stipulate the sentence that the Defendant accept. This leaves very little up to the judge, who merely must decide whether he or she will accept the plea agreement between the Defendant and the State.
In other circumstances, the plea transcript is vague with respect to the two parties, and the Defendant is therefore sentenced at the Judge’s discretion. The judge will listen to arguments from the State and from the Defense about how the Defendant should be sentenced, and make a determination – guided by those arguments and limited by statute – about the Defendant’s ultimate sentence.
In North Carolina, sentence is almost always imposed immediately upon the conclusion of the plea transcript. In the federal system, sentence is imposed usually two or three months after the plea is entered, so that United States Probation can prepare a Pre-Sentence Investigative Report for the judge to consider when sentencing the Defendant.