Experienced criminal defense lawyers work aggressively to obtain dismissals of criminal charges and to suppress evidence that was illegally obtained or is improper. They should always be ready to try your case in court before a jury. Many times, though, lawyers work with the prosecutor to arrange a plea bargain. A plea bargain essentially means that the prosecution either agrees to drop more serious charges, to replace more serious charges with less serious charges, or agrees to a sentencing recommendation.
Prosecutors often consider plea bargains because they know part of their case is weak. Defense lawyers may negotiate plea bargains because they understand that the prosecution’s case may be strong enough to result in a conviction. You, as the defendant, have the right to agree to or reject a plea bargain. Your defense lawyer works for you and must respect your wish to have a jury trial – if that’s what you want.
When will a plea bargain be offered?
In most cases, the plea bargain discussion takes place later in the criminal process. If your lawyer can suppress all of the evidence, he will seek a dismissal. If only some of the evidence is suppressed, that strengthens your ability to negotiate a plea bargain.
After the preliminary hearing, the suppression motions, and the discovery requests, you’re in a better position to evaluate who will testify against you and what they might say.
As your case nears a trial date, the prosecution may have other cases that have higher priority for them – which can also strengthen your position.
A key factor in plea bargain negotiations is understanding which judge is assigned to your case. Some judges are more favorable towards defendants than other judges.
Why should I consider a plea bargain?
Some of the advantages of plea bargain include:
- A degree of certainty. A jury trial is always risky. You have little control over the makeup of the jury – other than the right to question jurors about any possible prejudices. The length of your possible sentence is also risky if you are convicted. With a plea bargain, you know which charges you will be convicted of. You know what sentence the prosecutor will recommend. In most, but not all cases, the judge will agree to the terms of the plea bargain. The judge does have the final say, though – not the prosecutor.
- Avoids publicity. Any plea to a criminal charge damages your reputation. A plea agreement usually brings less attention though. Generally, jury trials are open to the public. Reporters are more inclined to write about jury cases than plea agreements. Plea agreements normally include you, your defense lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge. The victim may also have a say.
- A less severe criminal record. In many pleas, the charges are reduced from a felony to misdemeanor or from more serious offenses (such as a second-degree felony to a third-degree felony). The difference between a felony conviction and a misdemeanor conviction can mean the difference between being hired or not, getting to see your kids or not, being allowed to apply for educational scholarships or not. If you’re convicted of a felony, you can’t own a firearm. (Tennessee has a three-strikes law for repeat violent offenders.) You can’t vote. You may be denied housing. A plea bargain may help you avoid some of this collateral damage.
- A lower sentence. If the judge agrees with the prosecution, a plea bargain should result in a less lengthy prison sentence, the possibility of probation, or the possibility of an alternative sentence where the focus is on treatment and not punishment. A plea bargain can help avoid or reduce harsh sentences if you’re found guilty of another criminal offense – in the future.
- A faster resolution. The courts may take weeks or months to set a date for the trial. Jury trials can take a long time to try. Judges and prosecutors tend to appreciate that you’re pleading guilty instead of putting the government to the expense of a lengthy trial.
Jails are rough places. Plea bargains can help you get out of jail quicker or stay out of jail altogether.
What are the disadvantages to a plea bargain?
Some of the reasons defendants should not consider a plea bargain are:
- You’re giving up your right to a trial. You may risk going to jail and having a criminal record for a crime you didn’t commit or that the prosecution can’t prove that you committed.
- The prosecution’s case may be weaker than you think. Witnesses may not want to testify. The police officer may not be a strong witness especially if the cross-examination is effective. Crucial evidence may not be admissible or may be unreliable.
- You may have to place your safety in jeopardy in order for the prosecution to recommend the plea bargain. Some prosecutors will agree to a plea bargain only if you wear a wire (which could endanger your life or well-being) or if you agree to testify against another person.
- Your case may involve a co-defendant. If the prosecution can’t prove its case against you, the prosecution may not be able to prove its case against the co-defendant (who may be your friend).
- The prosecutor may not be that experienced. Some prosecutors are new. Some prosecutors just aren’t that goo