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Why would Aldon Smith plea no contest on all charges without a plea deal?

Aldon Smith plead no contest to all four charges, including three felony weapons possession charges, and one misdemeanor DUI charge. We look at what the deputy District Attorney had to say.

Ezra Shaw

Late Wednesday afternoon, Aldon Smith entered four pleas of no contest to the four charges he was facing in Santa Clara County. These included three felony weapons possession charges, and one misdemeanor DUI charge (Fooch's Update: Turns out it was 2 misdemeanor DUI charges; one for the basic DUI, one for being twice legal limit). Technically, a plea of no contest is not an admission of guilt. No contest means that they refuse to admit guilt but accept punishment as if guilty.

The benefit of a no-contest plea (when you admit the facts, but not your guilt) is that it prevents the plea from being used against you in any later civil or criminal proceeding. It is a little different when pleading no contest to felony charges. But, the felony charges were possession of assault weapons. So, for the purposes of this article, Smith has admitted to facts, not guilt.

If some civil complaint comes up regarding the misdemeanor DUI, for example, a plaintiff still has the right to sue Smith. If Smith entered a guilty plea yesterday, Smith would be completely admitting to the facts and his own guilt. If Smith pleads no contest, though, a plaintiff cannot use that as an admission by Smith in the civil suit.

Prior to the hearing, the San Jose Mercury News reported Smith had reached a plea agreement. Tracey Kaplan reported Aldon Smith had reached a plea deal on his DUI/weapons charges. She tweeted that a source indicated Smith was at the court filling out plea paperwork, and he would enter a guilty or no contest plea within the hour. I am not sure if she fully understood it to be a deal or if it was Smith merely entering a new plea.

Following the hearing, the deputy DA, Brian Buckelew, spoke to media outlets and per Kale Williams, he stated:

He faces a sentence that could range from probation to 52 months behind bars, at the judge's discretion, said Deputy District Attorney Brian Buckelew. He said Smith's plea was not the result of a deal with prosecutors.

"Traditionally, when people change pleas before a preliminary hearing, it works in their favor, when the defendant takes responsibility," Buckelew said outside court.

I could not find a transcript of what the deputy DA actually stated in the first paragraph, but as reported -- the Deputy DA did not say there wasn't a plea deal. Buckelew stated that Smith's plea wasn't the result of a deal. It seems to me, the Deputy DA parsed his words very carefully. The easy inference is there's not a plea deal between the parties. However, that may not necessarily be the case.

I do not practice criminal law, but find it extremely strange to see Smith plead no contest to all charges if there was no deal the table. Further, I have never seen a DA then state, a defendant has "take[n] responsibility" and "it works in their favor." He also reminds everyone the decision of Smith's fate is the judge's decision.

I find it difficult to believe at least an informal deal was reached, e.g., "if you plead no contest, we will recommend probation versus jail time."  Last year, I wrote about how the Santa Clara District Attorney's office had received a lot of heat for being lenient on the rich. I criticized the timing of the charges, how the charges were difficult to prove and felt the DA's office was posturing itself to save face. District Attorneys are elected, so public perception is important.

The Deputy DA stated "when people change pleas before a preliminary hearing, it works in their favor...." The prelim hearing was on April 29? Smith could have changed his plea at that time. Or, he could have plead no contest on May 10. Instead, the hearing was continued twice. Why the need for continuances if Smith just decided to take responsibility?

Further, Cam Inman reported that "before Smith entered court Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., lawyers entered Judge Nishigaya's chambers two hours earlier to discuss the cases." There are formalities to discuss when it comes to entering a plea of no contest, but two hours to discuss?

If Buckelew announced a plea deal with Smith and recommended house arrest or probation in lieu of jail time, for example, it could be perceived as soft on the rich. It would be bad publicity for the DA's office and the judge. Delays in hearings allows people some time to soften up and calm down. If Smith entered a plea, prosecution made a recommendation, and the judge had ruled no jail, people would have lost their minds. Smith is a public figure, so everyone is treading carefully.

Another strange aspect of yesterday is the length of time for the judge to render a sentence. When it comes to charges where jail time is a real possibility, the judge may need a couple of days, maybe couple weeks, to review the facts of the case before handing down a sentence. However, two months is very unusual. I could come up with several plausible scenarios as to why it could be delayed if there were a plea deal. But, if there is no plea agreement, it seems very odd.

I can see the DA saying, for example, "if you keep out of trouble for those two months, go to rehab or therapy, we will make a good recommendation on your behalf." And, maybe that's just it, maybe there is an informal conditional agreement where Smith had to enter the no contest plea, has to go to rehab or therapy, and then the DA will make a recommendation.

Frankly, I still believe the parties have some sort of agreement. It seems to me, all parties want to keep any informal agreements discrete to limit public backlash. The way the facts present themselves, this whole case seems like good public relations.

Author's Edit: After conversations with two criminal defense attorneys, it was brought to my attention there's a possibility the Judge undercut the DA on the offer. In California, the Judge can reach an agreement with the defendant, especially if he does not like the DA's position. It would also explain why the DA can say he made no deals. It gives confirmation there is no way Smith would be allowed to plead in this fashion without an agreement in place.