Should the Alford Plea be adopted in Canada?

In Canada, the courts always have the final say with regards to sentencing. However, plea bargaining is commonly used in the criminal justice system. In most Canadian criminal proceedings, the Crown has the ability to recommend a lighter sentence than it would seek following a guilty verdict in exchange for a guilty plea (especially if entered into early). The Crown can also agree to withdraw some charges against the defendant in exchange for a guilty plea.

Canadian judges are not bound by the Crown’s sentencing recommendations and could impose harsher penalties. Sometimes the Crown and defence will make joint submissions where they will both recommend the same sentence or a relatively narrow range.

In the United States, besides entering a guilty plea for a lesser charge, the accused can also enter into an “Alford plea”, under which an accused enters a guilty plea while maintaining innocence. The Dictionary of Politics: Selected American and Foreign Political and Legal Terms defines the term Alford plea as: “A plea under which a defendant may choose to plead guilty, not because of an admission to the crime, but because the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to place a charge and to obtain conviction in court.The Alford plea allows an accused who does not admit to the facts surrounding a charge to plead guilty to that offence. It originates from a US Supreme Court decision in North Carolina v Alford.

Would the Alford plea be useful in Canada? On one hand, it would allow an accused to take advantage of a plea arrangement that would otherwise be unavailable if the matter proceeded to trial. This option could help to alleviate a bogged down courts system by saving both sides a lengthy trial.  However, on the other hand, would the Alford plea be an easy way out for an accused to take advantage of a plea arrangement? Further, would it allow an accused to essentially plea guilty for a criminal offence but deny liability in a civil suit? For example, could an accused who makes an Alford plea for an impaired driving charge later deny liability for a civil suit in wrongful death?

It is unlikely that an Alford plea would allow an accused who makes an Alford plea to a criminal charge and later deny allegations of guilt in a civil case. Although innocence is maintained in an Alford plea, it is essentially a form of guilty plea and it does not require a court to accept those assertions. It allows an accused to maintain a claim of innocence, but agree to the entry of a conviction in the charged crime. Upon receiving an Alford guilty plea from an accused, the court may immediately pronounce the accused guilty and impose sentence as if the accused had otherwise been convicted of the crime.

In my opinion, the Alford plea is worth exploring as another sentencing option. It would allow the Crown to obtain a conviction and the courts would maintain its ability to levy a sentence against the accused. It could be a useful tool for resolving criminal cases in a shorter time period in cases that could potentially involve lengthy plea bargaining negotiations or lengthy trials.




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