At our criminal defense firm, one of the most common questions we get from clients, potential clients, and family members of clients, is whether or not to accept a plea deal that the prosecutor has offered. The answer, as is often the case with legal issues, is that it depends.
A plea bargain is an agreement where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or more of the charges against them in exchange for the prosecutor to dismiss the remaining charges, reducing the charges, or recommend to the court give them a lighter sentence.
For example, it's common driving under the influence (DUI) cases for a defendant to make an agreement to plead guilty to reckless driving, which will carry less penalties than a DUI conviction. A plea bargain also includes where a defendant pleads “nolo contendere,” or “no contest.”
This means they are not admitting or denying the charge, but they accept the punishment because the evidence in the case is sufficient to convict them on the charge. It's important to note that plea bargains can occur at any stage in the criminal process. In fact, plea deals can be reached immediately after the arraignment or even as late when a jury is about to return to the courtroom after deliberating a verdict.
Plea bargains allow a much faster resolution to criminal cases, and both the defendant and prosecution get a favorable outcome. The defendant is able to avoid a more severe penalty for their criminal charges and save money in legal fees, court costs, and fines. The prosecutor is able to have punished the defendant in some manner. Additionally, the schedule of the court is more manageable as it will have less cases going to trail, which saves time and money for the court system.
In this blog post, our California criminal defense lawyers will address some general considerations that apply in almost every case when evaluating the propriety of accepting a plea deal, also known as a negotiated settlement. Keep in mind, however, that every case is fact specific and that the benefits or costs of accepting a particular deal in a particular case will depend on an in depth analysis and consultation with the client about their specific situation.
Strength of the Prosecutor's Case
The first, and arguably most important, question to address when we begin considering a plea deal is what is the relative strength of the government's case? In other words, how likely is it that if our client proceeded to a jury trial they would be convicted of the charged offense or offenses? It's important to note the prosecutor is not offering a plea deal out of kindness or sympathy. Their agenda is to serve their best interest, not yours.
If the government's case is fundamentally flawed and their evidence is weak, there is very little reason to take a plea deal. In reality, however, it is rare that an extremely weak case would be filed in the first place or, in the case of a felony, that it would survive a preliminary hearing at which a judge would make a probable cause determination.
For that reason, the situation is much more likely that the government's case is either very strong, or is flawed in some respects but strong in others. In such cases, the client, with the assistance of our attorneys, must realistically assess the likelihood that a jury will be persuaded of their innocence given all the nuances of the case.
Assuming the government has enough evidence that they will likely secure a conviction if the case goes to trial, a series of other considerations become relevant. First, we must determine what the likely sentence would be following trial assuming the jury convicts the client.
It may be that, given the client's lack of prior record, other mitigating factors about their history and character, and the minor nature of the conduct, that even after trial the sentence is likely to be lenient. In that case, if the government is offering a relatively harsh sentence as part of a negotiated resolution, the client may wish to turn down the deal and proceed to trial on the assumption that the outcome is unlikely to be worse than what they are being offered. In other words, they don't risk much by putting the government to their burden.
In other situations, clients may be facing so-called “collateral consequences,” which change the calculus dramatically. For example, a client may have an immigration issue which precludes them from pleading to a certain crime or a certain sentence.
If the government is unwilling to improve the offer, the client may wish to turn the deal down and risk a trial knowing that the immigration consequences will outweigh any possible benefit of the plea deal. Other collateral consequences include employment, possible registration as a sex offender or drug offender, and professional licensure.
Our firm has represented multiple clients, for instance, who hold professional licenses such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, real-estate brokers, securities brokers, and even concealed carry license holders. If the plea deal, however lenient in terms of punishment, will result in loss of the professional or vocational license, it may not be in the client's best interest to accept it even if a client in their position would normally be advised to do so.
The assistance and advise of a professional licensure attorney is often critical to helping the client make these determinations as the standards governing licensure, including the duty to self-report, vary dramatically from license to license. If the client can accept a certain settlement with relative certainty that their ability to continue in their profession will remain intact, the advice may be to accept the plea deal and avoid the risk of a harsher sentence at trial.
Proving Case Beyond Reasonable Doubt
Finally, it must be noted that a criminal defendant always has the right to force the government to prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt. At our criminal defense firm, we never pressure clients to accept a deal that they are uncomfortable with, or “twist arms.” At the end of the day, the client has to bear the burden of whatever outcome we arrive at in the case.
The client has a constitutional right to a jury trial, and must be afforded the opportunity to have that trial if they wish to vindicate their innocence. The decision of whether or not to accept a plea deal is a weighty one which is best made after thoughtful consideration and consultation with an attorney.
Facing the possibility of jail time is clearly stressful, and it's typically tempting to just accept a plea offer to end the ordeal and move on with your life. This is why you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner. Your lawyer can evaluate the evidence against in order to determine whether the evidence supports the charges. Your lawyer can advise you on whether the plea bargain can be improved, or whether taking your case to trial is in your best interest.
Contact our Criminal Law Firm for Help
It's important to keep in mind that a guilty or no contest plea is considered establishment of your guilt, meaning the conviction will go on your criminal record. You could lose certain rights, such as the right to vote, or to own firearms. You might also lose your right to appeal when you agree to a plea bargain.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer might be able to negotiate a plea bargain that allows you to seal or expunge your criminal record after successful completion of your probation. When filling out an application for a job or apartment, you will not be required to disclose the arrest or conviction in most cases.
If you, or a family member has been charged with a criminal defense and is struggling with the decision of whether or not to accept a plea deal which the government has offered, please call our Los Angeles criminal attorneys for a consultation. We can walk you through the costs and benefits of the plea deal, and the likely outcome at trial. Contact us at 877-781-1570.
Eisner Gorin LLP 1875 Century Park E #705 Los Angeles, CA 90067 310-328-3776