Plea bargains are now a necessity. Many defendants can arrange a result allowing them to move forward with their lives instead of enduring the uncertainty of a court trial.
Some people believe this to be an improper shortcut that denies a defendant’s right to be heard. However, in many cases, criminal defendants are found guilty eventually when the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. A plea agreement allows the courts to quickly resolve cases where both sides agree to an outcome before going to trial.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
In a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, and the prosecutor makes concessions in exchange. The parties make an agreement that allows the defendant to receive reduced punishment and avoid the risks of a trial. In return, the prosecution can guarantee a specific result and preserve resources.
Understand, if you accept a plea bargain, you are pleading guilty or no contest, and most no contest pleas result in a judicial finding of guilt. There is no pleading not guilty in a plea bargain.
Why Would Anyone Accept a Plea Bargain?
- Confidentiality of a Guilty Admission. When you take a plea bargain, the statement made for the purpose of the agreement remains confidential. Suppose you admitted to a crime as part of your agreement. Still, you end up at trial because the prosecutor rejects the plea bargain. In that case, they cannot ask you whether or not you admitted to that crime. The prosecution must argue the case as if you never admitted anything.
- In Case of a Hung Jury or Support a Sentencing Cap. If a jury deadlocks and cannot come to a unanimous agreement on a verdict, both sides may be encouraged to reach a plea deal to avoid the expense of a new trial. In cases where both sides can’t quite reach an agreement for their plea bargain, both sides can take the incomplete agreement to a judge, who listens to each side and considers the remaining details.
- To Move Forward. The complete criminal trial process can take months or years to reach completion. If every criminal defendant had a full jury trial, including the pretrial motions, post-conviction motions, and appeals, the criminal court system would grind to a halt. There simply are not enough judges, court security people, clerks, or other staff to accommodate a full trial process for every crime committed.
When Can You Make a Plea Deal?
In most states, you can arrange a plea bargain at almost any time during the case, including:
- Before the prosecution files charges
- After the jury starts deliberating
- Even after the conviction, if you appeal the conviction and your argument appears to have merit
There is one thing to think about — if new criminal charges ever arise, your previous conviction (for which you accepted a plea bargain) could be used to enhance the new charges.
What if you’re innocent? Think very carefully about taking a plea bargain. Any criminal conviction, even if you never go to jail, can have a lasting impact on your life, including:
- Driver’s license suspension
- Exclusion from public housing
- Difficulty finding employment
- Inability to obtain a security clearance
- Inability to own a firearm
- Inability to qualify for professional licensure
- An obligation to pay court costs and fines
Speak with your attorney and weigh the risks carefully if you are innocent.
The Impact of a Guilty or No Contest Plea
A guilty plea is an admission of guilt; it’s as simple as that. Pleading no contest (nolo contendere) means you are not contesting the charge.
Either way, the result is the same because you now have a conviction on record, and you lose the same civil rights as if a jury convicted you of the same crime. On the other hand, it might be easier to seal or expunge your record after a plea bargain than after a conviction in court.
The main advantage of a no-contest plea is that the prosecution cannot use it against you in a related civil case. For example, if a personal injury case is made for a drunk driving accident, the plaintiff cannot use your no-contest plea in a related DUI case to show you were driving drunk at the time of the accident.
Types of Plea Bargains
Several factors determine the type of plea bargain available to you:
- Your criminal history
- The severity of the charges
- The strength of the evidence
- The potential for a guilty verdict at trial
The judge must approve the plea bargain before it takes legal effect.
Charge bargaining is the most commonly used type of plea. It is often used to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor charge. You might avoid minimum mandatory sentencing and allow you to retain some civil rights, like the ability to possess a firearm.
Here’s how it works — the prosecution accepts a plea bargain for a lesser charge in exchange for dismissing more serious charges. You plead guilty to something less serious than the original charge of the most serious of multiple charges.
For example, you are charged with burglary, but you plead guilty only to trespassing. The prosecution dismisses the burglary charge.
Count Bargaining (Plea and Bar)
If you face multiple charges, you might plead guilty to only one or more of the original charges in exchange for the prosecution dropping the rest.
For example, you are charged with robbery and simple assault. The parties agree you will plead only to assault, and the prosecution drops the robbery charge.
You agree to plead guilty or no contest in return for a lesser sentence after everyone agrees on the sentence the prosecution will recommend. You still get sentenced, but the sentencing terms do. You can eliminate jail time and settle for a fine, convert prison time to probation, or shorten a prison sentence.
This type of plea bargain is only used in very specific cases and purposes, and some jurisdictions won’t allow it.
The defendant pleads in exchange for the prosecutor’s stipulation that certain facts that led to the conviction or certain aggravating factors will be ignored during sentencing. This agreement is helpful because omitting specific facts could let you avoid minimum sentencing guidelines.
For example, the federal government files an indictment charge against a defendant for drug trafficking in which federal agents caught them with over five kilos of cocaine. This amount triggers a lengthy prison sentence.
Instead, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the offense and in return the prosecution stipulates that they possessed less than five kilos.
Consult an Attorney Before Accepting a Plea Bargain
A skilled criminal defense attorney can evaluate the merits of your case and the potential outcome of a jury trial against the plea bargain under consideration. The attorney might be able to negotiate a better outcome for you.
If you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer, contact the Office of Brett Podolsky for help.