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Plea deals

The prosecution sometimes happens to have sufficiently strong evidence against the defendant and is able to offer them an agreement in order to avoid an unnecessary trial. These agreements are known as plea bargains and in addition to sparing both sides of a lengthy trial, they can also be beneficial for the defendant.

In this blog post, we detail the specificities of plea bargains, including the definition, different types of plea deals, and the process of withdrawing a plea.

Key Takeaways

  • A Plea Bargain is a common agreement to settle the outcome of a case before going to trial
  • According to NPR, most criminal cases are settled via plea bargain
  • There are 3 ways to plea – Guilt, Not Guilty, No Contest
  • There are 4 common reasons to negotiate a plea – Charge, Count, Sentence, and Fact bargaining

What is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is a type of agreement that is a common part of criminal law proceedings. Also known as a plea deal, this legal concept refers to a situation in which the prosecution offers a kind of compromise to the defendant if they choose to agree to a plea bargain.

Practically, this means that the defendant may get a reduced sentence if they plead guilty or plead not to contest or challenge the accusations. This kind of bargain is commonly offered to defendants who are facing several charges.

For example, a person can plead guilty to one of the charges or to the least severe of charges. Should they do so, the court and prosecution can dismiss other charges or rule in favor of a less harsh sentence. The plea bargain is followed by a sentencing hearing instead of by a trial, which would be a normal procedure in a case where there is no plea deal.

There are three different types of plea deals: guilty, not guilty, and no contest.

3 Types of Plea Bargains

Attorney plea bargaining

Plea of Not Guilty

The first and most common plea agreement is the so-called “not guilty plea”. A not guilty plea happens in two situations: when the defendant actively states that they plead that they are not guilty, as well as when they choose not to speak at all or decline to enter a plea. One of the main advantages of a not-guilty plea is the fact that it endows the defendant with time to prepare the defense.

The not-guilty plea is followed by a selection of the jury, scheduling hearings, motions, and dates for the trial. In this case, the defendant must choose whether they want to be represented by an attorney or prefer to represent themselves. The prosecution, on the other hand, is tasked with proving that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Plea of Guilty

When a defendant decides to plead guilty, they admit that they have broken the law and have, in fact, committed a crime they are charged with. While attorneys generally advise against this, a guilty plea is a good path to take in cases when the prosecution in return offers a reduced sentence or does not add further charges to the case.

There are three things that should be kept in mind prior to pleading guilty. First, this kind of plea can be used against the defendant in a potential follow-up civil suit. Second, the prosecution has the burden of proving the defendant guilty, which they may not be able to do if they do not have sound evidence. And finally, the defendant has the right to hear the details about this evidence.

Plea of Nolo Contendere (No Contest)

The third type of plea is a no-contest plea, legally known as a plea of nolo contendere. When a person chooses not to contest, they essentially neither agree nor disagree with the accusations against them.

Just as the plea of guilty, this plea can be used against the defendant in future civil suits. Statistically, most no-contest pleas result in the defendant being found guilty.

Negotiating a Plea Agreement

Plea agreements are a common strategy used by both the prosecution and the defense to reach a mutually acceptable outcome in criminal cases. This process allows for the resolution of cases without the need for a lengthy and costly trial.

There are 3 common types of plea bargains that attorneys may negotiate:

Charge Bargaining

Charge bargaining involves the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the dismissal of more serious charges.

Count Bargaining

Sentence bargaining, on the other hand, involves negotiating a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

Sentence Bargaining

Count bargaining involves negotiating the dismissal of some charges in exchange for pleading guilty to others.

Fact Bargaining

Requires a defendant to admit to certain facts in the case in exchange for the prosecution agreeing to not introduce other evidence. These various types of plea bargains serve as a way for defendants to potentially mitigate their legal

Alternatives to Plea Bargains

Although plea bargains are a common occurrence in the legal process, they are not the exclusive recourse for defendants. In addition to entering a plea, defendants have other options available to them. These alternatives include opting for a trial, either by a jury or a bench trial overseen by a judge. The decision to pursue a trial versus accepting a plea bargain often depends on the specific circumstances of the case and the most advantageous legal strategy.

Another possibility is participation in pretrial diversion programs, which allow certain defendants, typically first-time offenders, to fulfill specific conditions in lieu of going to trial. Deferred prosecution agreements are also a potential avenue, wherein the prosecution is postponed, and charges may be dropped if the terms of the agreement are met. Each alternative carries unique implications, and it is crucial to carefully consider the choice with guidance from a legal professional.

High-Profile Examples of Plea Bargains

The plea bargaining system is frequently spotlighted in high-profile cases that conclude with such agreements. These cases range from celebrities and corporate scandals to political corruption, each demonstrating the plea bargain’s role in resolving complex legal issues while often circumventing a trial’s unpredictability. These instances provide a window into the strategic decisions within plea negotiations and highlight the system’s omnipresence in high-stakes legal battles.

At the time of writing this article, one of the highest profile examples of the use of plea bargaining is the Fulton County DA’s discussions with at least an additional 6 co-defendants of Donald J. Trump to uncover information about the group’s intentions to subvert the 2020 election. While the charges are alleged at this time, this is a great example of how attorneys can leverage plea bargaining in order to help build the strongest case possible.

Criticisms and Reforms
of Plea Bargain System

Despite being widely utilized, the plea bargain system is under scrutiny. Critics argue that it can create situations where defendants feel compelled to plead guilty out of fear of severe penalties. Consequently, innocent individuals may be coerced into accepting convictions. Additionally, the lack of transparency in the process, as deals are often negotiated behind closed doors, raises concerns about unequal justice.

There is a worry that defendants with varying resources and legal representation may negotiate more favorable outcomes than others. Proposed reforms aim to address these issues by introducing increased judicial oversight, mandatory disclosure of evidence, and enhancements in the quality of legal representation for defendants during plea bargaining. The goal of these reforms is to preserve the advantages of plea bargains while ensuring the integrity of the legal system.

Withdrawing a Plea

It is important to emphasize that it is possible to withdraw a plea after it has been made. However, this is a rather difficult task. While it is easier to withdraw a plea before sentencing, it is also possible to do it after. Newly found evidence and claims of innocence in the hope of a less severe penalty are not helpful in this situation.

If you happen to be in need of advice regarding a plea or any other sort of legal assistance, contact GHC Law Firm today at (512) 614-4412 and our seasoned attorneys will make sure to devise the best possible strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 3 most common plea agreements?

There are three distinct categories of plea bargains: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. Instead of proceeding with a trial, which is customary in cases without a plea agreement, a plea bargain is followed by a sentencing hearing.

What are the different types of plea bargains?

The U.S. Justice Department has formulated four varieties of plea bargains that are open to negotiation: charge agreements, recommendation agreements, specific sentence agreements, and fact-stipulation agreements. A charge agreement entails the agreement that certain charges will not be pursued or will be dismissed.

Can a Judge reject a plea agreement?

Yes the judge has discretion to either endorse or decline a plea agreement. In order to arrive at a decision, the judge assesses the suitability of the proposed penalty considering the gravity of the charges, the individual’s personal attributes, and their previous criminal history.

What's the difference between 'plea bargain' and 'guilty plea'?

A plea bargain is a negotiation between the prosecutor and the defense where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduction in sentence or dismissal of other charges. On the other hand, a guilty plea is an admission of guilt by the defendant, in exchange for a lenient sentence or a lighter charge.