Criminal Defense

What is a Plea Bargain Agreement in Criminal Law?

December 29, 2021 by Sheena Townsend in Criminal Defense  
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Taking the Plea Deal

Similar to a settlement agreement in a civil lawsuit, the parties in a criminal case (i.e., the prosecution and the defense) can enter into what is known as a “plea bargain” in order to resolve the matter.

A plea bargain—also referred to as a plea deal—is an agreement between the defendant and the district attorney’s office in order to conclude the case without going to trial. In such a situation, the defendant often agrees to plead guilty rather than pursue trial in exchange for the prosecution reducing the original charges of the conviction. This type of an agreement can be reached at any point before a verdict is rendered.

Depending on the circumstances, plea bargaining can be a beneficial mechanism for either side. More often than not, the prosecution and defense enter into these discussions when neither party is entirely sure the case will conclude in their desired outcome. Therefore, with a plea deal, the prosecutor achieves a criminal conviction and the defendant has the opportunity to plead guilty or “no contest” to a lesser charge and/or a lesser sentence than he or she originally faced. Overall, a plea deal provides a level of certainty to both sides.

There are situations, nevertheless, where it is not always in the best interest of the defendant to accept a plea arrangement.

Types of Plea Bargain Agreements

Although all plea deals may seem alike, there can be differences in the areas of negotiation and what the deal will ultimately gain both sides.

Charge Bargaining

Charge bargaining is the most common and widely-used form of plea arrangements. It normally covers the negotiation of the particular criminal charges the defendant faces at trial. As discussed above, in this scenario, in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest to a lesser charge, the prosecutor will dismiss the remaining and/or more serious charges.

Sentence Bargaining

Sentence bargaining is similar to charge bargaining with a slight caveat—instead of a defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge, he or she would enter a guilty plea to the original charge, but receive a lower sentence. Sentence bargaining alleviates the prosecution’s burden of presenting its case at trial, but gives the defendant a concrete sentence with a lighter timeframe.

Fact Bargaining

Fact bargaining is not a very common tactic in criminal cases. However, it entails a situation where a defendant would stipulate to the veracity and existence of certain facts (thus eradicating the prosecution’s need to prove them at trial), so long as the prosecution agreed not to introduce other specific facts at trial.

Process

The process of plea bargaining takes place, for the most part, outside of the courtroom. After a defendant is arrested and charges are brought against him or her, the prosecutor and defense attorney frequently begin informal plea negotiations. These tend to take place between the parties in person, via email, or over the phone. A judge is rarely involved until the plea deal is brought into court and formally placed “on the record.”

It is important to note that a prosecutor has no real influence over whether a judge accepts a plea bargain in any particular case. The prosecution can “recommend” that the court accept the deal, but it is ultimately up to the judge. However, so long as the court believes the defendant is knowingly and voluntarily waiving his or her trial rights and that there is a factual basis to support the charges against the defendant, the plea bargain is likely to be accepted.

Buyer Beware

Although plea bargains can be a useful tool, situations certainly exist where it is not always advantageous to accept a plea arrangement. Careful planning and deliberation should precede any plea bargain acceptance. This decision needs to be made with in-depth consultation with and counseling from a seasoned criminal defense attorney.

For example, pleading to certain lesser charges could open a defendant up to a “Three Strikes” violation. [Note: some offenses that are considered “serious” felonies can add to a strike on a defendant’s criminal record under California Penal Code Section 667. If a defendant has been convicted of a second felony strike offense, his or her sentence will be doubled in accordance with California’s three strikes law, and if he or she is convicted of a third felony strike offense, the sentence is a mandatory minimum of 25 years to life in prison.

Furthermore, since these offenses are considered serious in California, when a defendant is sentenced to prison, he or she is required to serve at least 85% of the prescribed sentence before meeting eligibility to be released on parole.]

Moreover, plea bargains have the potential to require a defendant to admit to particular facts which may seem innocuous at the moment, but could have harmful consequences for the defendant in the future. Furthermore, in properly negotiating a plea bargain, a defense attorney must possess the technical know-how to break down the elements of the crime the defendant has been charged with, as well as the elements of any crime he or she would be pleading to in lieu thereof.

A defendant must also have a thorough understanding of the actual and potential evidence against him or her in a case before accepting a plea arrangement. Therefore, a defendant should not feel rushed into accepting a plea; the defense team should allow the prosecution to lay out its case initially and research its own defense strategy before deciding which route is in the best interests of the defendant. Lastly, any attorney negotiating a prospective plea deal must be well-versed in California’s sentencing guidelines.

The reality is that the large majority of criminal cases do not reach their way to trial. Many defendants move to plead right away to the charges against them, while others have the ability to research and negotiate a proper deal. Regardless of the charges you may be facing, if you or someone you know is considering accepting a plea bargain, it is important to meet with a skilled criminal defense attorney who can make sure your matter gets the examination and scrutiny it deserves. No matter what the charges may be for, a criminal conviction can have serious complications for someone accused of a crime such as child custody issues, adoption eligibility, school admissions, employment and credit applications, licensing privileges, and obtaining insurance just to name a few.

Therefore, if there is any type of plea bargain you are considering, you want to be sure to meet with a seasoned criminal defense attorney who’s privy to negotiation techniques and is accustomed to speaking with the district attorney’s office on behalf of clients.

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How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
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