Criminal Law

Can You Negotiate a Plea Deal?

After an arrest, you will be arraigned, where you will listen to the judge read out the formal charges. The next step in your criminal case may be plea bargaining. This is where the prosecution and defense negotiate to agree about what charges the defendant will accept.

Many defendants just let their public defender or their hired criminal defense attorney handle the plea negotiations without getting a second opinion. Unfortunately, you may have a much better chance of fighting the charges than you know. You do not just have to accept the plea deal your lawyer offers. If you feel like your best interests are not being represented, you can contact another experienced attorney for legal advice.

What Is a Plea Deal?

plea deal is a negotiated agreement in a criminal case. The defendant and prosecution agree on how to settle the charges without a trial. There are benefits and drawbacks to plea bargains. For the defendant, accepting the deal may reduce the risk of getting the maximum sentence. It may also be a way to get probation instead of going to jail.

The downside of taking the plea deal is that once you do it, you lose most of your rights to challenge the charges. You may no longer be able to get a trial by jury, and it can be almost impossible to change your mind after pleading guilty. Unfortunately, many defendants just give in to the pressure from their court-appointed attorney and the threats from the prosecutor. But if you are facing criminal charges, you may have a stronger case than you realize.

Public defenders and district attorneys are often overworked, understaffed, and have long backlogs. Plea bargaining reduces the maximum penalties, gets a conviction, and avoids a criminal trial, which is a win for the government. However, it may not be a win for you.

Type of Plea Offer

The points of negotiation usually focus on the charges and sentencing.

  • Reducing the number of charges: If you are facing three criminal charges, prosecutors may offer to drop one of the charges in exchange for accepting a plea to the other two.
  • Requesting a lesser sentence: If you are facing a range of three to 10 years in jail, prosecutors may offer to request the minimum sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. If the judge accepts, you would receive a lighter sentence. In death penalty states, some plead guilty to first-degree murder and a sentence of life in prison to avoid execution.
  • Downgrading the offense: If a crime could be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, the prosecutor may agree to charge the offense as a misdemeanor. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge generally comes with reduced penalties.

Negotiating a Plea and Strategies

You and your defense lawyer can negotiate the offer to get better terms. Negotiations can go back and forth, with most of the work taking place in private without your direct participation. Ultimately, it is up to you to accept a plea bargain or not. Your lawyer cannot make you accept an offer.

However, it's important to remember that a plea bargain requires compromise. If a prosecutor is offering no jail in exchange for probation and community service, for example, and you want just community service, the prosecutor may withdraw the offer if you don't take it.

Judge and Court Approval of the Bargain

The judge generally has final approval of the plea bargain. The prosecutor will generally present the plea agreement to the judge, who may or may not accept the recommendation. The judge may accept the deal in part and reject the rest, such as refusing to impose the minimum sentence requested. That means you may receive a longer prison sentence than you thought. This is a risk you should be aware of.

Agreeing to Plead Guilty

If you take the plea offer, you are admitting guilt. Pleading "no contest" has the same effect, and it will result in a conviction. After the judge accepts your plea, there will be no trial and you will be sentenced. Make sure you understand what is at stake before you agree to the deal. It may also be possible to negotiate a plea deal after a trial begins.

Plea Bargaining for a Diversion Program

A diversion program may be available for first-time offenders for minor, non-violent offenses. If you are eligible for diversion or other alternative sentencing, you may be able to avoid a criminal conviction and penalties. However, diversion generally requires accepting the deal, which means pleading guilty.

In a diversion program, you may have to enter a guilty plea to begin probation. There are several restrictions and requirements as part of the program, which could include checking in with the court, submitting to random drug tests, and staying in school. If you complete the program, the court may dismiss the charges. However, if you violate the terms of probation, the court can immediately sentence you to jail because you already pleaded guilty as part of the agreement.

Criminal Defense Attorney Assistance

Don't be pressured into accepting just any plea bargain. Your lawyer can negotiate to get a better agreement or go to trial and fight to clear your name in open court. Contact an experienced law firm that understands negotiation tactics and will give you the legal advice you can trust.