Civil Disobedience Training


Pleas in Court: What They Mean

Almost immediately after arrest a defendant will be brought into court for an arraignment. At the arraignment the defendant is read her rights and is informed of the charges against her. At that time she will be asked how she pleads to those charges. She can make several responses:

1. GUILTY: By entering a plea of guilty, a defendant is admitting her guilt, thereby forfeiting her right to a trial. In such cases a defendant will simply be sentenced by the judge, though she may have to return to court at a later date for sentencing.

Demonstrators engaged in civil disobedience sometimes feel that this is the proper plea to enter at the arraignment. By pleading guilty they are saying, "Yes I committed the act of which you accuse me. I don't deny it; in fact, I am proud of it. I feel I did the right thing by violating this particular law; I am guilty as charged." Mahatma Ghandi is one example of a civil disobedient who always pled guilty in court as a matter of principle.

2. NOT GUILTY. If a defendant pleads not guilty, she must be tried and convicted before she can be sentenced. The burden of showing guilt lies with the state; you are presumed innocent unless the sate can prove your guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt. A defendant need not actually believe that she is not guilty in order to enter this plea.

Civil disobedients often believe that this is the proper plea to enter at arraignment. By pleading not guilty they are saying; "Guilt implies wrong-doing. I feel I have done no wrong. I may have violated some specific laws, but I am guilty of doing no wrong. I therefore plead not guilty." Since this places the burden of proof on the state, charges may be dropped by the government before the case is tried. In rare cases a defendant may be acquitted (found not guilty) during the trial.

3. NOLO CONTENDERE: Nolo contendere is Latin for "no contest." If a person plead "nolo contendere: she forfeits her right to a trial and (as with a guilty plea) simply comes before the judge for sentencing. Some people feel that a nolo plea is a compromise between pleading guilty and not guilty. While not contesting the charges one is also not admitting guilt.

4. Standing Mute. Some people will not answer at all when they asked by a udge how they plead. They are usually civil disobedients who refuse cooperation with other aspects of arrest and courtroom procedures. In such cases a plea of not guilty will usually be entered for the defendant by the judge.

Such defendants fell that they should not have been arrested, do not belong in court, and only dignify the illegitimate proceedings by participating in them. Others may feel that the courts in this country, by their very nature, are oppressive institutions whose only legitimacy comes from the cooperation given them by the defendants; they therefore feel compelled to noncooperate with the proceedings. Serious consequences can result from noncooperation, including physical abuse by the police and additional jail time from the judge.

5. Creative pleas. Some defendants in political cases enter "creative pleas." for instance, when asked by the judge how she pleads, a defendant might respond: "I plead for an end to the arms race" (for a peace demonstration), or " I plead for an end to the laws making it illegal to be lesbian and gay" (for a queer civil rights action). In such cases a plea of not guilty will usually be entered for the defendant by the judge.

 We are happy to include this historical attribution:.
. This page was authored by JERRY ELMER, circa 1972 as Civil Disobedience Training component for the Rhode Island Air War Project, protesting the U.S. air war in Indochina. This page was later incorporated into the Handbook for Nonviolent Action by the War Resister's League in New York City; and later appropriated (with love) for this ACT UP Civil Disobedience Training.  

ACT UP Direct Action Guidelines

History of Mass Nonviolent Action

Nonviolent Response to Personal Violence

Practicing Nonviolence

Nonviolence Training

Affinity Groups and Support

Steps Toward Making a Campaign

Consensus Decision Making

Legal Issues/Risking Arrest

Legal Flow Chart: What Happens in an Arrest and Your Decisions

Legal Terms: What They Mean

Jail Solidarity

see also the following:

The Demonstrator's Manual (crucial)

Marshal Training Manual

Getting Arrested: Why do we do it?