A plea of ‘not guilty’ in a criminal proceeding is a public declaration that you do not admit the essential elements of the allegation made against you.
The plea invokes your constitutional right to a trial where you are presumed innocent and where the burden is on the state to prove the specific allegation beyond a reasonable doubt.
Every accused has a right to a trial. Even if you have committed the alleged act with the requisite intent, it is not lying or committing perjury if you choose to enter a plea of ‘not guilty’. A plea of 'not guilty' is not a declaration of what you did or didn’t do – rather, it is a request to have a trial to compel the state to prove the specific allegation against you by way of admissible evidence before the matter proceeds any further.
A plea of ‘not guilty’ does not compel you to testify at your trial or to produce any other evidence in your defence – the burden of proof always rests with the state to establish your guilt without relying upon you as a witness for the prosecution. Accused persons are never forced to tell their side of the story or to explain their actions at a criminal trial. Furthermore, your silence cannot be used against you as a basis for a finding of guilt.
While you may choose to testify or present evidence in your defence following the conclusion of the case for the prosecution, the invocation of your right to a trial does not give you a license to testify falsely under oath or to tender evidence that you know is false in an effort to secure an acquittal. There is a difference between choosing to remain silent at trial (a constitutional right) and providing false information under oath with an intention to mislead the court (the criminal offence of perjury).
If the state does not tender sufficient evidence to discharge its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, the judge will dismiss the allegation.
If you are found guilty after a trial and the matter proceeds to a sentencing hearing, the judge will not punish you for entering a plea of ‘not guilty’ and choosing to exercise your right to a trial - an accused cannot be penalized for invoking a constitutional right.
That being said, a plea of ‘not guilty’ is a choice not to take advantage of the potential benefits that may accrue from a timely plea of guilty. There is a financial and an emotional cost to setting a matter down for trial. A negotiated resolution with the prosecution may also result in a more lenient state recommendation on punishment and greater confidence with respect to the ultimate outcome. Furthermore, a judge will give an offender credit for a guilty plea at a sentencing hearing when making the final decision with respect to the appropriate penalty – credit that does not exist when there has been a finding of guilt after a trial.
If you choose to enter a plea of ‘not guilty’, you can change your plea to guilty at any time before the judge or jury renders a verdict. As a general rule, however, a judge will assign an offender greater credit for a guilty plea that is made at an earlier stage of a criminal proceeding.