The Basics of a Plea Bargain

Most criminal cases filed are resolved out of court by both sides coming to an agreement out of court. This process is known as negotiating a plea or plea bargaining. A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty or not contest.

In exchange for an agreement, the prosecutor must do either of the following:

  • Drop one or more charges
  • Reduce a charge to a less serious offense
  • Recommend to the judge a specific sentence acceptable to the defense

The judge, however, is not bound to the prosecution’s recommendation. Plea bargaining is considered very common. In fact, over 90 percent of convictions are derived from negotiated pleas, while less than 10 percent of criminal cases end up going to trial.

In general, plea deals are encouraged by the court system. Since criminal courts are more crowded than ever before, prosecutors and judges alike feel immense pressure to move cases quickly through the system. Although criminal trials can take days, weeks, and even months, guilty pleas can typically be arranged in a matter of minutes. In addition, defendants save time and money not having to defend themselves at trial.

The following are the common types of plea bargaining methods:

  • Charge bargaining – A method of plea bargaining where prosecutors agree to drop charges or reduce a charge to a less serious offense in exchange for a plea by a defendant. This is the most common form of plea bargaining.
  • Sentence bargaining – A method in which the prosecutor agrees to recommend a lighter sentence for certain charges if the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to them. Sentence bargaining is far less common and more tightly controlled than charge bargaining.
  • Fact bargaining – A method in which the defendant pleads in exchange for the prosecutor’s stipulation that specific facts led to the conviction. The omitted facts would have increased the sentence due to the sentencing guidelines. The least common form of plea bargaining, this occurs when a defendant agrees to stipulate to certain facts in order to prevent other facts from being introduced into evidence. Some courts may not allow fact bargaining.

What Happens if I or the Prosecutor Break a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is a contract between the defendant and the prosecutor. If either side fails to live up to its end of the agreement, the most likely remedy is to go to court to enforce the agreement. In particular, many plea bargains ask a defendant to do something in return for a lesser charge. If a defendant fails to perform his or her end of the bargain, then a prosecutor can revoke the offer.

What offenses are eligible for plea bargaining?

While most criminal offenses are eligible for plea bargaining, some serious felonies are banned from reaching a plea deal. Serious felonies include certain violent sex crimes, any felony which involved the commission of a firearm by the defendant, and any offense of driving while under the influence. However, bargaining could only be done with such crimes when there is no sufficient evidence to prove the people’s case, the testimony of a material witness cannot be obtained, or a reduction or dismissal would not lead in a significant change in sentence.

Although the thought of a plea deal and a lighter sentence is appealing, there can be negative consequences from entering a plea deal. A guilty or no contest plea entered as a judge-approved plea bargain results in a criminal conviction, just as it would be at the conclusion of a trial. The conviction will be on the defendant’s criminal record (however, the defendant might be eligible to seal or expunge the criminal record).

Plea bargaining is basically a private process, yet this is changing now that victims rights groups are being recognized. Under many victim rights statutes, victims have the right to have input into the plea bargaining process.

By contrast, you could have a strong case and could likely be found not guilty if you go to trial. That is why it is imperative to obtain sound legal advice from an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can evaluate your case and determine all of your available legal options to obtain the most favorable outcome possible.

If you have been arrested for a crime in Lincoln, NE, contact Berry Law and request a free consultation with our experienced lawyer today.

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