To Plead or Not to Plead: A Guilty Defendant's Guide to Plea Bargaining
Anyone charged with a crime whether it be a misdemeanor or felony is given an opportunity to make a plea bargain in order to avoid a trial. The court sets aside a specific court date (often more than one) and holds what is called a plea conference in order to bargain for a guilty plea.
The goal of a plea bargain is to give the person charged with the offense an opportunity to make a deal with the prosecutor in exchange for guilty plea. If the defendant agrees to the terms the defendant then presents the terms to the judge which determines in open court whether to accept or reject the plea bargain. If the terms and guilty plea are accepted the defendant forfeits a trial on guilt or innocence and receives the punishment agreed to by the prosecutor and defendant. If the judge rejects the plea bargain the parties begin the plea bargaining process over again. However, the judge almost always accepts the plea bargaining terms.
But when do you know whether taking a plea bargain and pleading guilty is better than going to trial? The following are 5 keys to use when determining to plead or not to plead when you know you are guilty.
- Thoroughly read the discovery. The most useful tool in negotiating a deal with the prosecutor is to know all of the evidence being used against you in your case. Federal and State law now require that the State hand over all information pertaining to your case which is usually done through discovery packets. Your discovery packet includes an investigation report, witness statements, criminal records, photographs, audio and videos from the incident and/or police interviews. All of this information will be used to negotiate a plea bargain or use at your trial. Make sure you have read the discovery thoroughly in order to dispute any of the evidence and refresh your memory on what occurred.
- Explain yourself. Now explaining is not the same as making an excuse. By explaining I am referring to acknowledging that your actions were wrong but also explaining your version of the events that took place. Keep in mind, the prosecutor has only received the officer's version of the events so they will be unaware of anything not contained in the discovery. It is your criminal attorney's job to ensure that your version of the events are heard and explained in order to make you look less criminal and more human.
- Understand the law. Understanding the law is detrimental to determining whether to take a plea bargain or whether to go to trial. When reviewing the discovery it is crucial to point out flaws in the evidence. These flaws can allow your criminal attorney to flesh out defenses for you which can make the prosecutors chances of winning at trial slim. Prosecutors are unusually always set up to win and if they feel you have a valid defense or the officer did not conduct a valid investigation it can significantly change the plea bargaining terms and reduce your jail time or probation offer. If you have a perfect defense to the charge take your case to trial. It is likely worth the risk for a not guilty verdict.
- Know your goal. It seems silly but knowing your goal and thoroughly explaining it to your attorney will help you obtain the plea bargain you want. I have had various clients who explain to me that they would rather serve time in jail than worry with paying probation cost through a lengthy probation or risk violating their probation and end up back in jail for an even longer term. Others would rather do any amount of probation than receive a jail sentence. Don't assume that your attorney knows your goals. Instead, speak your mind and explain your expectations. If you are not happy with the prosecutors offer and your attorney feels that a jury or judge could better satisfy your goals, do not be afraid to take your case to trial.
- Take your criminal history into account. If you have a criminal history make sure your attorney is aware of it and aware of the circumstances surrounding the offense. Prosecutors love using your past against you and will punish you with it over and over again. However, if you are considering going to trial also be aware of the fact that a jury will likely know your history as well. Allow a criminal attorney to determine if the type of offense(s) you have been convicted of are the type that could harm you in your trial. If you have no criminal history be sure that your attorney points that out to the prosecutor. It will likely open up a variety of options for you that will significantly help you in obtaining a good plea bargain and allow you to avoid trial altogether.
Ultimately, you decide whether or not you want to take a plea bargain. The prosecutor and criminal defense attorney cannot force you to accept the deal that they come up with. You always have the right to a trial and if you follow the steps outlined above you can make an informed decision on whether a trial is in your best interest. Just never forget that you probably know your case better than anyone else so ensure that you are being heard and your goals are understood by your attorney. Good luck!