When it comes to criminal cases, more than 90 percent of criminal convictions are reached as part of a plea agreement. Only about 10 percent of criminal cases ever make it to court. Plea bargains or deals involve pleading guilty or no contest to criminal charges and are often used to avoid lengthy and expensive trials.
Some defendants may agree to a plea deal because they don’t like the idea of leaving their fate in the hands of a jury or a judge, who will determine sentencing if there’s a conviction. There are advantages and disadvantages to striking a plea agreement and foregoing litigation in court. Only a seasoned criminal defense attorney can offer advice that takes into account the best option for your particular situation.
When your freedom is on the line, allow the team at Berry Law to advise you of your options. Omaha’s premier criminal defense lawyers have successfully tried and won many trials over the course of the firm’s history.
How Is a Plea Agreement Reached?
Plea bargains require the prosecution and the defense attorneys to work together to reach a compromise that feels fair to both parties. Once the terms of the plea agreement are negotiated, it’s presented to the defendant as an alternative to going to trial. The defendant can either accept or reject the plea deal offered.
Because trials are both expensive and time consuming, plea bargaining saves the criminal justice system money and resources. It can help to manage large caseloads in federal courts by reducing the number of cases requiring a full trial. Agreeing to a plea deal may earn a defendant favor with overburdened judges and prosecutors because they are able to quickly and efficiently resolve the case, whereas a trial could take days, weeks, or months to reach a conclusion.
When more than one individual is involved in a criminal investigation, a prosecutor may offer a plea deal to one defendant to strengthen their case against a co-defendant. Part of a plea bargain in these cases might include an agreement by the defendant to testify in court against his or her co-defendant.
What Are the Advantages of Taking a Plea Bargain?
Less Severe Sentencing
Many defendants facing criminal charges accept a plea agreement because the prosecutor offers a lighter sentence for a crime than what the sentencing guidelines call for. This can mean a significantly shorter prison sentence than if the defendant was convicted following a trial, with the possibility of receiving the maximum sentence greatly reduced.
Depending on the charge and the terms of the plea bargain, a defendant may receive probation or community service instead of jail time. If he or she does have to serve time, they may be able to get out sooner than if they had gone to trial.
A prosecutor may agree to reduce the charges against a defendant in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest. For example, a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge instead of the felony they initially faced.
The defendant may also agree to plead to a crime of a different class or degree that carries lesser consequences. This could allow him or her to remain eligible for certain jobs or to have their criminal record expunged in the future, which may not be a possibility under more serious convictions. A felony conviction can bar you from certain professions in education, healthcare or law, and you may also be required to give up a professional license or certificate if convicted of a felony charge.
Unlike a misdemeanor conviction, a convicted felon may face a loss of his or her civil liberties, including the right to carry a firearm or the right to vote in U.S. elections. A felony conviction may also cast a shadow on any future criminal or civil proceedings you are part of.
Another option that prosecutors frequently use in plea bargaining is to lessen the number of counts a defendant is facing. For example, if a defendant is charged with nine counts of distribution of a controlled substance, the prosecutor may agree to allow the defendant to plead to a single count, taking the punishment for all of the counts off of the table. This could translate to a shorter prison sentence and the possibility for earlier parole.
There is the possibility that if a defendant loses at trial and is later charged with a future offense, a more serious conviction could be on the table. This is especially true in DUI cases that involve multiple charges. A second DUI charge can result in jail time unless the first offense was bargained down to reckless driving.
In certain situations, the plea charge is more socially acceptable than the initial charge, especially in regard to sexual offenses like rape or molestation, which are often very stigmatizing. Instead, a guilty plea to assault removes such emotionally charged language from a defendant’s record, and if they do have to serve time, there is less risk of them being harmed or killed in prison if convicted of the less socially stigmatizing charge.
The fees to cover a private defense attorney’s services are costly, and a defendant who chooses to go to trial will pay much more for his or her defense than one who chooses to accept a plea bargain. A plea deal avoids the time and expense of a trial, especially for a defendant who expects to be found guilty anyway.
Avoidance of Embarrassment & Publicity
A trial tends to put a defendant in the spotlight by revealing private details of his or her life to friends, associates, and acquaintances that they would otherwise not share. This information can bring embarrassment to a defendant and his or her family.
While a plea bargain is still a part of public record, it’s much less memorable than a highly publicized trial. Agreeing to a plea means that the prosecution will likely discontinue its investigation into a defendant’s past if there could be other skeletons in the closet that he or she doesn’t wish to have discovered.
A plea bargain may also protect other potential defendants, such as in cases where one person takes the blame for another in order to protect them from prosecutorial investigation.
Brings Closure to the Case
Following a plea agreement, a criminal case is over except for the defendant’s appearance in court to enter his or her plea. There is no trial or sentencing hearing to attend, which can eliminate the emotional strain and anxiety that come with the uncertainty of not knowing what the outcome will be. A defendant who takes a plea bargain can begin dealing with any consequences immediately instead of dragging them out so that he or she can get on with their life.
For a defendant who has been in jail since his or her arrest, the idea of being released can be a big relief as well. Assuming that the sentence doesn’t include jail time or that it’s been suspended as part of the plea agreement, a defendant may be free to simply walk away.
Are There Any Disadvantages to Entering into a Plea Agreement?
A plea agreement doesn’t give a defendant the opportunity to have his or her case heard by a jury. As a result, an innocent individual may end up serving time for a crime they didn’t commit.
Additionally, negotiating a plea agreement too early in the process can result in a weaker effort on the part of a defense attorney to investigate and prepare for trial. Instead, the prosecution and defense lawyers are focused on the terms of the plea bargain rather than the preparation required to win a trial.
While money should be a consideration, making a decision on whether or not to take a plea deal based solely on finances may leave an innocent defendant feeling like he or she never got their day in court. This is why any plea negotiations or decision-making should involve a discussion with an experienced criminal defense attorney who is representing your interests. This person can help you make sense of the terms of the agreement, what they would mean to you, and the disadvantages of pleading guilty or no contest.
Allows the Prosecution to Avoid Problems with Their Case
A prosecutor who realizes there are cracks in the state’s case, such as non-credible witnesses, faulty forensic evidence, or a sympathetic defendant, may be eager to strike a plea agreement because they already know they can’t win at trial. Further, if a prosecutor feels like they will have to try a criminal case against an attorney who has previously litigated and won difficult criminal trials, they are often more willing to accept a favorable plea deal than take the chance that they may lose.
By accepting a plea bargain, the defendant and his or her attorneys are deprived of the opportunity to review the evidence in the case and investigate witnesses to build its own case. The defense also gives up the ability to file motions to exclude evidence or witnesses from testifying. Consequently, a defendant who accepts such a deal may be accepting a conviction that the prosecution would have had trouble securing if the case went before a jury at trial.
Agreeing to a plea deal too soon may be a mistake. The more effort that a criminal defense attorney puts into challenging the prosecution’s case, the better the plea offer may be later. A defendant usually has more leverage to negotiate the closer the case gets to trial.
Admission of Guilt
Negotiating a plea deal doesn’t rely on whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. Many innocent people have accepted plea bargains to protect themselves from lengthy prison sentences.
Sometimes simply hearing the words “not guilty” at the conclusion of a trial can provide an innocent defendant a sense of vindication and closure and help to restore his or her reputation in the community. A plea agreement doesn’t allow for that moment because it requires the defendant to plead guilty of a crime. For defendants who have taken the plea agreement simply because they feared being found guilty at trial, this can lead to feelings of resentment or defeat.
Once a guilty plea is entered, a defendant cannot later revoke the plea by telling future employers or others that they didn’t really commit the crime since the criminal conviction is a matter of public record. This can lead to life-long feelings of regret.
Possible Issues of Coercion
A defendant may feel considerable pressure to accept a plea agreement, either by the prosecutor or even by their own attorney in some cases. Prosecutors may use scare tactics such as emphasizing the maximum sentence possible, causing truly innocent individuals to accept a plea bargain out of fear of the unknown.
Plea Bargains Are Non-Binding
Even in cases where a prosecutor has agreed to a plea deal, the court is not obligated to accept the terms. Everything must be approved by a judge. It’s plausible that a defendant could enter his or her plea and then have it denied. That plea would still be a matter of public record.
Judges are responsible for ensuring that a defendant fully understands the terms of the plea bargain. They will ask if he or she understands the charges against them, and make sure they acknowledge that they are waiving the Constitutional right to a trial, as well as the consequences of entering into the agreement.
When a case goes to trial, there is at least the possibility that a defendant has a chance to be acquitted and avoid a criminal record. If someone has pled guilty as part of a plea agreement, the conviction will be a permanent part of his or her criminal record regardless. Depending on the offense for which they were convicted, that information could stay on a defendant’s record for the rest of their life, and they may or may not be eligible to have it expunged in the future.
Only an attorney familiar with your situation can help to advise you on the odds of winning your case if it goes to trial. An ethical attorney will only offer advice on whether or not you should take a plea deal. They won’t make the decision for you. Ultimately, whether you agree to a plea bargain or decide to take your chances at trial, it’s your decision to make. Call us today to speak with a team member