Demystifying the Law: Plea Bargains
In last week’s edition of demystifying the law, we looked at how to settle a civil lawsuit. If you’ve been charged with a crime and plead not guilty, it’s also possible to resolve the case without going to trial. This is called a plea bargain or plea agreement.
A plea bargain is typically negotiated between the prosecutor and your attorney. The judge will also have to sign off on it.
It’s important to remember that a plea agreement—like a settlement in a civil case—represents a compromise between both the defendant (the person charged with the crime) and the prosecution. If you’ve already been charged with a crime, it’s unlikely that the prosecutor will agree to drop the charges entirely. But the prosecution should agree to something that’s better than the worst-case scenario.
For example, if you were charged with a 1st-degree felony, a plea agreement might allow you to plead guilty to a 3rd-degree felony (a lesser charge) and serve a shorter jail sentence. Or a felony charge might be reduced to a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine and probation.
Why Accept a Plea Bargain
If you’ve been charged with a crime, there are a few reasons to consider accepting a plea agreement:
- Certainty: Rather than taking your chances at trial and sentencing, you’ll know exactly what charge you’ll be found guilty of and how you’ll be punished.
- Speed: A criminal trial can take time to resolve. If you want to put the charges behind you, make amends and move forward with your life, a plea agreement can make that happen more quickly.
- Cost: Trials are expensive. If you’re paying your lawyer by the hour, a plea agreement will reduce your total legal costs. (In fact, this is one of the reasons that the prosecutor is also willing to consider a plea agreement.)
Questions to Ask When Deciding to Accept a Plea Agreement
It’s vitally important that you understand what is happening when you accept a plea agreement. In all likelihood, a plea bargain will still require you to plead guilty to a crime (meaning you’ll be a convicted criminal). Also, a plea bargain may still obligate you to spend time in prison or pay a fine.
Before accepting a plea bargain, ask yourself and your lawyer these questions:
- What crimes have I been charged with? Am I agreeing to plead guilty to those same crimes in a plea agreement or will the charges be reduced to lesser crimes?
- What is the likelihood that a judge or jury would find me not guilty? What is the likelihood that the judge or jury would find me guilty? If I’ve been charged with several crimes, are there certain charges where I’m more of less likely to be found guilty at trial?
- What is the worst-case scenario if my case goes to trial? What is the most likely outcome if my case goes to trial?
- How much will I owe in legal fees if I agree to a plea bargain? How much will I owe in legal fees if my case goes to trial?
- How long will it take to resolve my case if it goes to trial? Will I remain free on bond during that time? Will I remain in jail?
After Accepting a Plea Bargain
Any plea bargain has to be approved by a court. A judge will talk to you in person and in open court to make sure that the plea is voluntary and isn’t the result of force, threats or promises that aren’t contained in the plea agreement. The judge will also explain all of the rights you’re waiving with the plea and the consequences of the plea. For example, you must be told:
- That you’re waiving the right to a jury trial and right to appeal
- That you’re waiving the right to confront witnesses against you
- About the maximum and minimum sentences you could face and any fine you could have to pay if the case went to trial
The laws and court rules in your area specify exactly what a judge must tell you before a plea is accepted. Most states follow the federal rule with respect to what a judge must discuss with a defendant before accepting your guilty plea.
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