In a plea bargain, a criminal defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for charges being dropped or diminished. As part of the plea bargain agreement, a prosecutor also may request a sentence acceptable to both sides.
Plea bargaining serves as a common way to resolve criminal cases in California and throughout the United States. Nationwide, some nine in 10 convictions result from plea negotiations, with less than one in 10 going to trial.
Why is plea bargaining so common, and what can you expect if you enter into a plea agreement?
Why Do Prosecutors Offer Plea Bargains?
With court dockets becoming increasingly crowded, judges and prosecutors face pressure to resolve cases quickly. Trials can last for weeks or months, but plea bargaining can occur in the space of a brief conversation. Plea bargains also provide prosecutors with a guaranteed conviction, whereas trials may result in a “not guilty” verdict.
Judges have motivation to accept plea agreements, since they help ease the caseload in crowded courtrooms. Packed jails and prisons in California and elsewhere stand as another catalyst for the acceptance of plea bargains.
In addition, plea bargains can serve as a means of protection for government informants, many of whom have criminal convictions. In a trial, the defense likely would bring up the criminal past of an informant. But in a plea bargain, prosecutors can keep informants’ criminal records private.
Prosecutors also may offer a plea bargain if they need a defendant’s help as a witness in another case. In exchange for a reduced charge, a defendant may provide important testimony.
When Does Plea Bargaining Happen?
Plea bargain negotiations can occur at nearly any point in the process of charging and trying a defendant, beginning with the initial arrest.
Negotiations may continue even as a jury prepares to read a verdict. In the case of a jury failing to reach agreement — known as a hung jury — the criminal defense attorney and prosecutor can work to reach a plea agreement rather than going through the whole trial process again. Plea deals can even happen following a conviction, as a case works its way through appeals.
Plea bargaining negotiations may happen either in person or by phone, and they can take place in the prosecutor’s office or in the judge’s chambers. As part of the negotiations, the judge may inform the defense of the expected sentence in the event of a guilty plea.
How Does Plea Bargaining Work with Mandatory Sentences?
California’s Three Strikes sentencing law, which went into effect in 1994, has made plea bargaining less common for serious felony offenses. The law was amended in 2012 and now stipulates that a “third strike” be a violent or serious felony and that defendants serving a sentence for a third strike have the ability to request a reduction in sentencing for the second strike offense if their eligibility changed under the revised law.
In addition, plea bargains are less common than they once were in DUI cases due to mandatory sentencing and other factors. For defendants pleading to a lesser charge of reckless driving, criminal records still indicate that the offense involved alcohol, and license suspension can last as long as a year.
In the event of another DUI conviction within the next decade in California, the prior conviction — even with the reduced charge — factors into sentencing just as strongly as would a prior DUI. Even in the face of mandatory sentencing and other obstacles, though, agreeing to a plea bargain can help reduce the ramifications of a DUI.
How Plea Bargaining Affects Your Criminal Record
If you agree to a plea bargain, you will have a criminal conviction on your record as if you’d gone through a trial ending in a guilty verdict. However, a plea bargain can lessen the penalties against you and can put you in better position for a later possible expungement of your record.
By working with an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the local criminal justice system, you benefit in the plea bargain process. For a free consultation about your case and the potential impact of a plea bargain, contact Lance Daniel, Attorney at Law.