Plea AgreementsPlea agreements and Plea bargaining by Vincent Rivera, criminal defense attorney
A vast majority of cases end up pleaing out.
When I receive a plea offer I always ask myself two questions:
- What are we getting?
Are they dismissing charges?
Are they agreeing to a below guideline sentence?
The second question I ask is
2. Can we do better on our own?
Now that's a far more difficult question because what that question involves:
What is the likelihood of your legal defenses winning and/or the likelihood of your factual defense winning a trial?
I'll let you in on a little secret most attorneys are gonna get the exact same plea offer at the beginning of the case
Whether you have a court-appointed public defender or you've dropped thousands of dollars on an attorney.
Why do you need an experienced litigator? If you're just gonna plea the case out.
Well, do you have an attorney that's capable of taking something past the initial round of plea negotiations?
That's why you need an experienced litigator because when plea negotiations break down we have to fall back to fighting the case.
We have to fall back to filing motions to suppress. We have to fall back to filing motions to dismiss.
We ultimately have to start teeing it up for trial and even down the line we're trying to set it up for appeal.
The idea is is that even if you do want to plea out by doing these things this sometimes is enough to get us the plea offer that you're happy with.
Plea Bargaining FAQ
Although popular TV shows and movies may make it seem like a criminal case is destined to go to trial immediately after an arrest is made and charges are filed, the truth is that only a tiny handle of cases ever make it to trial. Nearly all are resolved with a plea bargain. Since you or your loved one will almost certainly be offered a plea bargain, read this FAQ to learn more about the process.
What exactly is a plea bargain?
A plea bargain is when the defendant agrees to enter a plea other than not guilty to one or more of the charges against him or to a lesser charge. In return, the defendant is charged with fewer or less severe crimes, receives a reduced sentence, or receives some other consideration. A plea bargain is negotiated between the defense attorney and prosecutor and then formalized at a court hearing. A plea bargain ends the case, and there is no trial or further court appearances other than a possible separate sentencing hearing.
What are the different types of pleas?
A not guilty plea indicates that a defendant wishes to contest the charges against them. Most criminal defense attorneys advise their clients to initially plead not guilty so that they have time to look more closely at the evidence and to look into a plea bargain.
A guilty plea indicates that the defendant accepts the charges against him. The defendant can plead guilty to all of the charges, some of the charges, or to a lesser charge if one is offered. A guilty plea results in a conviction of that charge with the same effect as being found guilty by a jury. If a defendant pleads guilty to only some of the charges without a plea deal in place, the case will continue for the other charges.
A no contest plea is effectively the same as a guilty plea in criminal court. However, in a civil lawsuit, it cannot be used as evidence of an admission of guilt because it literally means the defendant did not contest the charges and not that they admitted to them.
Why are plea bargains used in so many cases?
Even though only a small number of cases go to trial, the court system is overloaded. Judges promote plea bargains to keep moving cases. Prosecutors seek plea bargains to guarantee convictions, keep themselves from being overwhelmed with cases, and bring closure to the crime victim and their family. Defendants accept plea bargains because the deal is better than the worst outcome they would face at trial and to bring the case to a close so they can move on with their lives.
Why are sentences usually reduced for a guilty plea?
Part of the reason for reduced sentences is to encourage defendants to take a guilty plea. In addition, a defendant who pleads guilty is seen as taking responsibility for their actions and showing remorse, and the justice system believes that they should be punished less harshly than someone who refuses to admit guilt and forces the state to take on the time and expense of a trial.
Are plea bargains available in all cases?
Plea bargains are legally available in all cases. However, many prosecutors' offices have policies against offering plea bargains for certain types serious of crimes or under other special circumstances such as a repeat offender. Similarly, many offices have standard offers for less serious crimes. There is also no guarantee that the offer made will actually be more desirable than taking a chance at trial.
Is there a time limit on making a plea bargain?
A plea bargain can be made at any time from arraignment until the jury reaches a verdict. As a practical matter, most prosecutors set an earlier deadline on plea deals or make the offer less favorable as the trial date approaches and they have to spend more time on the case.
Do constitutional rights apply to plea bargains?
A defendant waives their constitutional rights when they accept a plea bargain. This includes their right to a jury trial, their right to confront the witnesses against them in court, and their right to appeal. They also waive any constitutional challenges to the evidence against them such as an argument that they were only arrested because of a search that violated their Fourth Amendment rights.
Does the judge have to accept a plea bargain?
A judge does have the discretion to reject a plea bargain. However, judges give great weight to the agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys and only reject plea deals in rare circumstances. Most of the time, this includes sentencing the defendant as promised. However, in federal court and in some states, the judge is free to impose a sentence different than what was agreed to. In those jurisdictions, the prosecutor only agrees to recommend a specific sentence to the judge and the plea is still valid even if the judge imposes a harsher sentence.
Can there be a plea bargain without the prosecutor's approval?
Most deals must technically be offered by the prosecutor, but in some cases judges will aggressively attempt to persuade them to make a certain offer. In those cases, the prosecutor will often agree, and this is especially case if the judge is pushing a plea to the most serious charge. If the prosecutor refuses to consent to a plea deal, the judge can bypass them by promising a specific sentence to the defendant if they plead guilty to all of the charges.
Is a lawyer needed to plead guilty or no contest?
There is no legal requirement to have a lawyer to enter a plea. However, a plea involves the waiver of important rights, and the fairness of an offer must be weighed based on the strength of the evidence, any legal arguments for excluding evidence against the defendant, and what offers have been made on similar cases in the jurisdiction. This makes the advice of an experienced lawyer very important.
Who decides whether to accept a plea bargain?
While a defendant would be foolish to completely ignore their lawyer's advice, the defendant has the absolute right to make the final decision. Often, this decision rests on how they feel about the risk of receiving a harsh sentence after trial versus the possible consequences of pleading guilty now.
Can a defendant plead guilty if they aren't?
It is possible for a defendant to plead guilty if they aren't, and they don't have to admit to the allegations against them. In what's known as an Alford plea, the defendant enters into a plea bargain with the understanding that they do not admit guilt but are pleading guilty because the risks of harsh consequences after going to trial are so high that they wish to avoid them by accepting the reduced consequences offered in the deal.
Can a guilty plea be withdrawn?
A guilty plea can only be withdrawn under the rarest of circumstances. When the plea is entered, the judge asks the defendant under oath if they understand the charges against them, if they've discussed their decision with a lawyer and are satisfied with his representation, and if they've been threatened or coerced. Because this eliminates virtually all grounds for challenging a plea, it takes a very strong legal argument showing exceptional circumstances for a plea to be subsequently overturned.
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