You may not realize it because of the television shows and movies you watch, but most criminal matters don't go to trial. Only a small percentage of cases are decided by a jury. Rather, the vast majority of criminal cases end with a plea bargain or plea agreement. These agreements usually have a big impact of the defendant's sentence or "punishment." Many plea bargains limit the crimes for which a defendant may be convicted or even contain a "promise" about the sentence.

Some Basics

A plea bargain is simply an agreement between the defendant - the person accused of a crime - and the prosecution where both parties agree to do something for some type of benefit. The most common types of pleas are:

  • Guilty pleas, where a defendant admits to committing a certain crime, and
  • Nolo contendere or "no contest" pleas. This is when a defendant doesn't admit or deny committing crime, but takes the punishment. Essentially, with such a plea, the defendant is says: "I'm not saying I did it, and I'm not saying I didn't do it. All I'm saying is there's enough evidence against me to convict me of the crime"

Sentencing Matters

Why enter a plea at all? Why not go to trial? For the prosecution, it means saving the time and money involved with going through a trial and getting a conviction against a defendant. For the defendant, it usually boils down to jail time. In most cases, a defendant is much more likely to get a less severe sentence by entering a plea than if he decides to go trial and loses. There are two main reasons for this:

  • In some plea agreements, the prosecution agrees to drop some criminal charges or reduce the level or severity of a crime in exchange for a defendant's guilty plea. For example, a driver accused of driving while intoxicated (DUI) may negotiate a deal to plead guilty to reckless driving, a much less serious offense which carries a less severe penalty
  • Sometimes the prosecution will agree to a specific sentence and make it part of the plea deal by promising the defendant to "recommend" the sentence to the judge when it comes time for sentencing. For example, the prosecutor may recommend sentence of fewer years in prison than a defendant might face if he goes to trial or gets convicted. The prosecutor may also promise to recommend probation instead of jail time

Will It Stick?

As a general rule, the judge doesn't have to agree to a plea agreement, including any promises made by the prosecution regarding the defendant's sentence. After all, at the sentencing phase of almost every criminal matter, it's the judge's job to determine the defendant's sentence. As a practical matter, though, prosecutors usually have the trust of the judges and they typically go along with the prosecution's plea deals.

There may be an occasional exception when a judge doesn't like the deal, such as when a defendant has prior criminal convictions or the crime involved is particularly violent or destructive. If the plea deal is "too sweet" and the proposed sentence doesn't fit the crime, in the judge's opinion, he may reject the deal and give the defendant a sentence other than the one in the plea agreement.

Even if that happens, though, there's still a chance for you to get the sentence you bargained for. As a general rule, if the judge gives you a sentence that's more severe than the one in the plea agreement, you may file an appeal. This is when you ask a high court or another judge to look at your case to see if the sentencing judge made a mistake. If you win on appeal, your case will be sent back (or "remanded") to the sentencing judge so that he can "fix" the sentence - give you the sentence stated in the plea bargain.

Plea Is Final

A defendant is free to withdraw or take back his plea at any time and elect to go to trial instead, so long as that decision is made before sentencing. Once you entered a plea and the court announces your sentence, it's too late to withdraw the plea. At this point, your only option is to file an appeal and challenge either the legality of the:

  • Plea, such as by arguing that you were coerced into pleading guilty or you didn't understand exactly what it meant to plead to a crime
  • Sentence because either the judge gave you a sentence that's harsher than the one you agreed to in the plea bargain, or because the prosecutor didn't make the sentencing recommendation he promised to make, just to name some examples

Negotiating a plea bargain can be complicated. Before you agree to anything, carefully read the state or federal laws that apply to your case to see what sentences you may face if convicted by a jury. That way, you'll know if any deal offered by the prosecution is worth your while. If you have any questions, contact an attorney before you accept the deal.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • The plea deal I've been offered doesn't say anything about my sentence, but it does agree to reduce the charges against me in exchange for my plea. Is it a good deal?
  • Can we put a clause in my plea agreement stating that I have the right to cancel or withdraw the plea if the judge gives me a sentence other than the one listed in the agreement?
  • Can the prosecution make a promise about where I'll serve my sentence? Naturally, I'd rather serve it a minimum security facility rather than the state prison.

Tagged as: Criminal Law, plea bargains, sentencing, criminal lawyer