Whether the defendant decides to take a plea deal or not, most criminal proceedings involve plea bargaining. That's because there are benefits to both the prosecution and the defendant in resolving a criminal case through a plea deal. For example, a plea deal provides certainty to both sides. Read on to learn about the different areas of negotiation involved in plea bargaining and the logistics involved.
The Areas of Negotiation in Plea Bargaining: Overview
Plea bargaining actually involves three areas of negotiation, which are described below.
- Charge Bargaining: This is a common and widely known form of plea. It involves a negotiation of the specific criminal charges (or counts) that the defendant will face at trial. Usually, in return for a plea of "guilty" to a lesser charge, a prosecutor will dismiss the higher or other charge(s) or counts. For example, in return for dismissing charges for second-degree murder, a prosecutor may accept a guilty plea for manslaughter (subject to court approval).
- Sentence Bargaining: Sentence bargaining involves the agreement to pleading guilty (for the stated charge rather than a reduced charge) in return for a lighter sentence. It saves the prosecution the necessity of going through trial and proving its case. It provides the defendant with an opportunity for a lighter sentence.
- Fact Bargaining: The least used negotiation involves an admission to certain facts ("stipulating" to the truth and existence of provable facts, thereby eliminating the need for the prosecutor to have to prove them) in return for an agreement not to introduce certain other facts into evidence.
The validity of a plea bargain is dependent upon three essential components: knowing waiver of rights, voluntary waiver, and the factual basis to support the charges to which the defendant is pleading guilty.
The Logistics of Plea Bargaining
Plea bargaining generally occurs on the telephone or in the prosecutor's office at the courtroom. Judges aren't involved except in very rare circumstances. Plea bargains that are accepted by the judge are then placed "on the record" in open court. The defendant must be present.
One important point is a prosecuting attorney has no authority to force a court to accept a plea agreement entered into by the parties. Prosecutors may only "recommend" to the court the acceptance of a plea arrangement. The court will usually take proofs to ensure that the above three components are satisfied and will then generally accept the recommendation of the prosecution.
Moreover, plea bargaining isn't as simple as it may first appear. In effectively negotiating a criminal plea arrangement, the attorney must have the technical knowledge of every element of the crime the defendant has been charged with, an understanding of the actual or potential evidence that exists or could be developed, a technical knowledge of "lesser included offenses" versus separate counts or crimes, and a reasonable understanding of sentencing guidelines.
Careful Consideration is Needed Before Accepting a Plea Bargain
The decision to accept or reject a charge, sentence, or fact plea bargain should be made only after careful and thorough consultation with your defense attorney as there are many ramifications that aren't always obvious at first glance. For example, pleading guilty to a lesser charge, depending on the circumstances and whether your state has a Three Strikes Law, could still result in a long-term prison sentence. Also, depending on your case and the charges against you, a sentence-based plea bargain may lead to less time in prison, but could involve registration as a sex offender for the rest of your life, which you could avoid if you're found not guilty at trial.
Finally, fact plea bargains could lock you into admitting certain seemingly irrelevant facts at the start of your case, which may become more relevant as the evidence in the case develops. Because of these potential consequences, and because you and your attorney have the ability to negotiate the terms of a plea bargain, don't feel as though you need to accept the prosecution's first offer.
Get Legal Help with Your Plea Bargaining Questions
As you can see, plea bargaining can involve various areas of negotiation and can be a complicated process. For this reason, it's a good idea to consult with a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your case. After all, attorneys' knowledge of the prosecutorial team and judicial staff, their legal expertise, and their experience give them a critical edge in finding the best deal possible.