Trials are usually the last step of a long legal process that begins when you're accused of breaking the law. Long before a jury decides your guilt or innocence, you or your criminal defense attorney will meet with the prosecutor and appear in court to decide if a trial is even necessary.
Plea Bargains Usually Happen Before Trial
The state's attorney - called the prosecutor - might offer you a plea bargain to avoid trial. This usually allows you to plead guilty to a related offense that's not as serious as the one you're accused of. In return, the prosecutor recommends a less serious punishment to the judge. The prosecutor might offer you a plea bargain before trial, but either side can suggest one in mid-trial. Your lawyer might ask for one if he feels you have a lot to lose - or if your trial isn't going well.
You Can Plead Certain Issues
Criminal trials usually involve two issues - the facts, and how the law applies to those facts. For example, law enforcement can collect evidence against you only according to certain rules. The evidence is fact but, under the law, the prosecutor might not be able to use it because of the way it was gathered. If you offer a "conditional plea" you can plead guilty to the facts while an appeals court decides the legal issue. If the appeals court decides that the police erred in gathering evidence, you can take your guilty plea back. Your trial will go on, but without the evidence the police gathered illegally.
Plea Bargain Deals Can Be Broken
Judges are not obliged to rule according to a plea bargain agreement, but they typically do. If the prosecutor doesn't uphold the agreement, the court will usually allow you to take back your guilty plea. Sometimes prosecutors will offer a plea bargain in exchange for your testimony against someone else who was involved in the crime. If you back out, the prosecutor doesn't have to honor the plea bargain.
Pretrial Hearings Set Rules for Trials
Even without a plea bargain, your criminal case doesn't usually go straight to trial. A pretrial hearing occurs first. This is when you tell the judge whether you're guilty or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, the judge will decide issues that your attorney or the prosecutor want to clear up before trial. For example, your attorney might want the judge to block the prosecutor from using certain evidence against you. Trial usually begins a few weeks later.
A Criminal Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding criminal trials and plea bargains is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.
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