Indiana Law Journal

Article Title

Fictional Pleas

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2019

Publication Citation

94 Indiana Law Journal 855 (2019)


A fictional plea is one in which a defendant pleads guilty to a crime he has not committed, with the knowledge of the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge. With fictional pleas, the plea of conviction is detached from the original factual allegations against the defendant. As criminal justice actors become increasingly troubled by the impact of collateral consequences on defendants, the fictional plea serves as an appealing response to this concern. It allows the parties to achieve parallel aims: the prosecutor holds the defendant accountable in the criminal system, while the defendant avoids devastating noncriminal consequences. In this context, the fictional plea is an offshoot of the “creative plea bargaining” encouraged by Justice Stevens in Padilla v. Kentucky. Indeed, where there is no creative option based on the underlying facts of an allegation, attorneys must turn to fiction. The first part of this Article is descriptive, exploring how and why actors in the criminal justice system—including defendants, prosecutors, and judges—use the fictional plea for the purposes of avoiding collateral consequences. This Article proposes that in any individual case, a fictional plea may embody a fair and just result—the ability of a defendant to escape severe collateral consequences and a prosecutor to negotiate a plea with empathy.

But this Article is also an examination of how this seemingly empathetic practice is made possible by the nature of the modern adversarial process in which everything is a bargaining chip. What does it mean that all parties in the criminal justice system agree to allow a lie to become fact? What does the fictional plea tell us about the role of truth in our adversarial structure? Faced with the moral quandary of mandatory collateral consequences, the system adjusts by discarding truth and focuses solely on resolution. In this sense, fictional pleas serve as a case study in criminal justice problem solving. The fictional plea lays bare the soul of an institution where everything has become a bargaining chip: not merely collateral consequences, but truth itself. Rather than a grounding principle, truth is nothing more than another factor to negotiate around.