Plea Bargains and Plea Agreements.

by criminal defense attorney Vincent Rivera

A vast majority of cases end up pleading out.

When I receive a plea offer, I always ask two questions:

1. What are we getting?

- Are they dismissing charges? Are they agreeing to a below-guideline sentence?

The second question is:

2. Can we do better on our own?

This is a far more difficult question, because that question involves:

What is the likelihood of your legal defenses winning and/or the likelihood of your factual defense winning at trial?

I'll let you in on a little secret: most attorneys will get the exact same plea offer at the beginning of the case, whether you have a court-appointed public defender, or whether you've dropped thousands of dollars on an attorney.

So why do you need a trial attorney?

Why do you need an experienced litigator if you're just going to plea the case out?

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 up for trial, and even down the line, we're trying to set it up for appeal.

The idea is that even if you do want to plea out, sometimes doing these things is enough to get us the plea offer that you're happy with.

Plea Bargaining FAQ's

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 number 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 her 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 cases moving. Prosecutors seek plea bargains to guarantee convictions, keep themselves from being overwhelmed with cases, and bring closure to the victim of the crime 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.