The reality is that most criminal cases are resolved through a plea agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant. If you face criminal charges, you will most likely have to decide at some point in your case whether or not to accept a plea agreement. This is a very important decision in your criminal case since a criminal conviction can have long-term consequences. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you make this important decision.
What Is a Plea Agreement?
A plea agreement is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant to resolve the criminal case where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to a certain crime and the prosecutor agrees to provide the defendant a benefit for doing so. Plea agreements come in many different forms. In some cases, no actual "plea agreement" is reached with the prosecutor, but the prosecutor agrees to recommend a certain sentence to the judge in exchange for the defendant's agreement to plead guilty either to the original charged offense or to a lesser offense. In other cases, the prosecutor may agree to reduce the charged offense to a lesser offense in exchange for the defendant's agreement to plead guilty. There may or many not also be an "agreement" on a specific sentence, or an agreement by the prosecutor to recommend a specific sentence to the court.
In cases where there is no actual "agreement" between the parties regarding sentencing but only a recommendation by the prosecutor of a particular sentence, the court may or may not follow the prosecutor's recommendation. It is important to keep in mind that the judge's decision not to follow a "recommendation" on sentencing following the entry and acceptance of a guilty plea is generally not a basis to withdraw the guilty plea.
On the other hand, when the prosecutor and defendant enter into a plea agreement, the judge must first approve it. There would be a court hearing where the parties present the terms of the plea agreement to the judge. The judge would then question the defendant to be certain that he fully understood the terms of the agreement and voluntarily agreed to it. Then the judge would decide whether or not to approve the plea agreement.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Entering Into a Plea Agreement?
As with any agreement between parties where there is a dispute, a plea bargain involves a compromise. For the prosecutor and the judge, there are clear benefits of resolving a case through a plea bargain, including judicial economy and efficient resolution of their caseloads. In addition, prosecutors may gain the cooperation of the defendant as part of a plea agreement, which may assist their investigation or prosecution of other individuals. Judges have a similar incentive for wanting a criminal case to be settled—reduction of an already congested docket of court cases.
For you as the defendant, the decision whether to accept a plea agreement is more complicated and has more long-term ramifications. Here are some of the benefits of entering into a plea agreement:
- Remove uncertainty. One of the benefits of entering into a plea agreement is removing the uncertainty of the outcome of the case, which may result in you being found guilty of a more serious offense at trial.
- Lesser sentence and charges. A plea agreement may either result in a reduction in the charges against you, or a less severe sentence. This could affect more than just the penalties that could be imposed. For example, if you hold a professional license, you may risk its revocation if you are convicted of a felony. However, if you plead guilty to a misdemeanor offense, you may reduce the risk the losing your license and your job.
- Cost and time. Taking your case to trial can be time consuming, expensive, and very stressful. You must pay your attorney to thoroughly investigate the crime, prepare for trial, and conduct your trial. In addition, you may need to pay expert witness fees for the experts you might need to help prove your innocence. You avoid these costs when you enter into a plea agreement. More importantly, you avoid the stress and anxiety of trial.
There are also disadvantages to entering into a plea agreement. You should consider the disadvantages as well as the benefits when making your decision. Some of these include:
- Innocence. Unfortunately, being completely innocent of committing the offense you are being charged with does not guarantee a not guilty verdict at trial. When you are innocent and feel you must plead guilty to a lesser offense, it can feel unjust and immoral that you are being forced to do this for practical reasons.
- Coercion. You could face strong pressure from the prosecutor, the judge, and possibly your attorney to accept a plea agreement. You may feel unreasonable pressure to enter into the plea agreement that you are not certain is in your best interests. If this is how you feel, you should take a step back, reevaluate your options, and consult with an experienced attorney who will properly advise you on your options and the best path forward for you.
- Lack of investigation. Because police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys know most cases are settled through a plea agreement, there may not be sufficient investigation of the crime by the police or even your own attorney. This could result in an important defense that may result in dismissal of the charges against you being overlooked. You need to retain an experienced attorney who understands the importance of conducting a thorough investigation and fighting the charges when doing so is in your best interest.
- Loss of constitutional rights. When you enter into a plea agreement, you give up important constitutional rights, such as the right to have a jury decide your case, the right to plead not guilty and persist in that plea, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against you, and the right to testify in your own defense or to remain silent.
- Sentence. By entering into a plea agreement, you would be pleading guilty or no contest to some offense that will result in the imposition of a sentence of some sort, even if it is probation or the payment of fines.
- Criminal record. If you plead guilty to any charge, even a misdemeanor, you will have a permanent criminal record that may affect your ability to obtain employment, a loan, security clearance, and more.
If you have been charged with a crime, let our experienced criminal defense attorneys investigate the charges against you, build a strong defense, and help you decide whether a plea agreement is in your best interests. To schedule your free case evaluation, call our office or fill out our convenient online form today.