As I understand it, a criminal defense lawyer is an officer of the court. As such, he is not allowed to lie. If a lawyer knows that his client is guilty of the charge, can he still plead not guilty for his/her client? A friend of mine claims that he cannot because that would be lying to the court.

  • It should be noted that "not guilty" isn't the same as "innocent". Commented Apr 22 at 21:37
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    @MichaelHall I commented about that under the answer, to avoid someone mistaking it for "answering in comments". Commented Apr 23 at 17:46

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A "not guilty" plea is not a statement of fact, it not made under oath, and is not subject to an ethical obligation that it be supported by a belief that the client is factually innocent of all crimes charged. A "not guilty plea" is a litigation position that demands that the state prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The rules of professional conduct for criminal defense lawyers expressly allow a criminal defense lawyer to do so.

It is not unethical for a criminal defense lawyer to make a not guilty plea for a client who is known to the lawyer to be guilty. Indeed, a "not guilty" plea is implied as a matter of law when the client, personally or through the client's lawyer, does anything other than plea guilty at his arraignment.

The relevant rule of professional ethics (which is substantially similar in all U.S. jurisdictions) states:

Rule 3.1. Meritorious Claims and Contentions

A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law. A lawyer for the defendant in a criminal proceeding, or the respondent in a proceeding that could result in incarceration, may nevertheless so defend the proceeding as to require that every element of the case be established.

. . . .

Official Comments . . .

<3> The lawyer's obligations under this Rule are subordinate to federal or state constitutional law that entitles a defendant in a criminal matter to the assistance of counsel in presenting a claim or contention that otherwise would be prohibited by this Rule.

Your friend is incorrect on this point, even though it would make logical sense and many people share your friend's misunderstanding of this issue.

The main ethical obligation of a criminal defense lawyer to limit what is done to defend criminal charges against the client are to not knowing allow perjured testimony to be submitted to the court and to not knowing allow forged or faked evidence to be submitted to the court. See generally, Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3 (Candor Towards Tribunal).

See also these related posts at Law.SE:

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    "Guilty" or "Not Guilty" can be loosely associated with "Deliver Punishment" or "Let go Free", respectively. In this context, the antonym of "Innocent" is "Culpable", not "Guilty" as the latter is a term of art reserved for verdicts. Commented Apr 23 at 17:43
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    @MindwinRememberMonica, I completely disagree, and would argue the opposite: "Guilty" and "innocent" are common words with well understood ordinary meanings, and each is the antonym of the other. Rather it is "not guilty" that is the term of art normally used only in legal pleadings. (That's the slightly longer version of the point I was making under the question...) Commented Apr 23 at 20:30
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    @MichaelHall we are not talking about language and grammar, but terms of art in the context of judicial persecution. Yes, any scholar of the language of the Angles will tell you these two words are, indeed, antonyms. You are raising a red herring. The whole point here is that a person who is "not Innocent" can still plea "Not Guilty". If we don't divest the natural language relationship for this particular case and only here, then we have a contradiction. Commented Apr 24 at 11:44
  • @MindwinRememberMonica, "we are not talking about language and grammar, but terms of art in the context of judicial persecution." Yes. "Not guilty" is a legal term of art not to be confused with "innocent". "The whole point here is that a person who is not Innocent can still plea Not Guilty.". That is exactly the point of my first comment. I think we agree here? Commented Apr 24 at 14:13

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