Should You Go to Trial or Take a Plea Deal?
If you are charged with a criminal offense you may be faced with a difficult decision: should you agree to the prosecution’s plea bargain before your case goes to trial, or should you wait for the trial to be given your sentence? The answer isn’t always simple and straightforward, so to help you make the right decision if this situation arises for you, this article will guide you through all the pros and cons of each option and anything else you need to know in order to make an informed decision.
A criminal defense attorney will be able to advise you on your case, and if you are in need of immediate advice you should talk to an attorney ASAP Ultimately you are the person who has control over the final decision.
WHAT IS A PLEA DEAL?
A plea deal, or bargain, is when a prosecutor offers the defendant an opportunity to plead guilty and receive a certain, and often lesser, charge and/or sentence. If you are offered a plea bargain, you (the defendant) are entitled to know all the alternatives and, as far as your criminal defense lawyer can predict, the consequences of each option.
Here’s an example of what a plea bargain may look like: a defendant is charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Their attorney receives the plea bargain and tells the defendant that the prosecutor is willing to accept a guilty plea to reduce the charge to simple assault and will recommend a sentence of six months incarceration and a $500 fine. It will be then up to the defendant to reach a decision on whether or not to take the deal with their attorney’s advice.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF PLEA BARGAIN?
There are three different kinds of plea bargain, and a fact bargain:
A sentence bargain is when the defendant enters a plea of guilty in return for a lesser sentence. For example, 12 months incarceration instead of 24 months. This is sometimes combined with a charge bargain.
A charge bargain is when the defendant enters a plea of guilty in return for a lesser charge. For example, simple assault instead of assault with a deadly weapon. This is often combined with a sentence bargain since lesser charges come with lesser sentences.
A count bargain is when the defendant enters a plea of guilty in return for a reduced count. For example, instead of being guilty of three counts of assault, you agree to reduce it to one for the lesser sentencing one count brings, and the prosecution drops the remaining charges.
Fact Bargain (not a plea deal)
A fact bargain is not a plea deal and is not often used. It is when the defendant admits to certain facts in a case instead of the prosecutor having to prove them at trial in return for agreeing not to introduce other facts at trial. In this bargain, the case goes to trial.
Whatever the bargain, a judge must approve and accept it.
WHO HELPS ME MAKE THE DEAL?
If you hire a private criminal defense attorney they will manage the deal for you, or you can have a public defender guide you through the deal. A private attorney will be more invested in your case, know more about it, and will be able to talk with you at length about the advantages and disadvantages of your agreeing to the deal (or not). Remember that your attorney or defender has a huge amount of experience and have seen a wide range of cases and their outcomes, so their advice is worth your consideration, even if it doesn’t go with your instincts.
PROS OF TAKING A PLEA DEAL
Prosecution Has Already Considered the Case
A prosecutor doesn’t offer a plea bargain unless they have carefully studied the case, gathered all the evidence they believe they need, spoken with witnesses and victims, and considered a fair sentence. This means if you believe you will be found guilty, that a plea deal may offer you a better sentence than you’ll get if you go to trial.
You Can (Almost) Guarantee Your Sentence
Agreeing to a plea bargain is the only way to have any degree of control over your sentencing. You will have the chance to think over the offer and whether to agree to it. If you do, the only hurdle remaining is the judge, who must agree to the terms of the agreement. If you don’t take the plea bargain, you’ll be at the mercy of the judge and jury.
Often, you’ll have to wait a year or more before your case can go to trial, which means you and your family must live in a state of limbo until you receive your sentence or are found not guilty. If you agree to a plea deal you won’t have to wait, and you’ll be able to move on with your life as soon as possible. It also saves the time of the judge and jury who would have to see your case.
From the state’s point of view, cases that agree to a plea deal outside of the courtroom help save them a huge amount of money, and so judges are more inclined to agree with the prosecution’s recommendation of the lesser charge and/or sentence.
You will also save money if you are paying for your own criminal defense attorney as they won’t have to spend the time putting your case together for trial.
Avoid Unwanted Publicity
Trials are extremely public and can gain a lot of media attention that may make it difficult for you and your family to return to normal life after the trial.
Often a Lesser Charge or Sentence
If you are offered a plea deal it is nearly always a lesser charge and/or sentence than you would receive at trial.
CONS OF TAKING A PLEA DEAL
Waive Your Right to Appeal
If you agree to a plea deal you must also surrender your right to file an appeal on the conviction later down the line, unless a specified doctrine is drawn up outlining the legal parameters and agreed on by both parties.
You Will Be Charged
If you hope to be found not guilty or acquitted of the crime, you must go to trial. If you agree to a plea deal you will voluntarily plea guilty and receive the agreed-upon charges and sentence, and it will be on your criminal record, even if you are innocent.
In many areas and cases, there will be a minimum sentence you have to receive that the prosecutor will not be able to reduce, even if they wanted to.
The Judge Has Control
Regardless of your deal, the judge will still ultimately have control and can reject the deal if they don’t agree with it, and will impose a longer sentence.
Pros of Going to Trial
You May Be Found Not Guilty
If you go to trial and the prosecution cannot prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you committed the crime, you may be found not guilty or even acquitted of the crime. You can only be found not guilty by going to trial. If you are innocent or believe the evidence against you is limited, you may choose to go to trial to try and avoid the charges.
You Have More Time
If you aren’t in jail awaiting your sentencing, you will have more time to spend with your family, to get your affairs in order, and to work with your criminal defense attorney to put together your defense before the trial. If you are serving time while you wait, you may have already served the sentence by your trial and be released immediately.
Benefits of the US Constitution
If you refuse the deal and go to trial you will receive all the benefits of the US Constitution, meaning you must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The prosecutor must gather together their case to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. You also may benefit as any mistake the prosecution makes may cause the evidence to be suppressed.
CONS OF GOING TO TRIAL
You May Receive Harsher Sentence
If you reject a plea deal there will be no guarantee that the prosecution will seek the same sentence at the trial, and the judge may decide to impose a harsher sentence, even if the prosecution seek the same sentence. At trial, the judge will be able to give you the maximum penalty and sentence.
It Gives the Prosecution More Time
Just as going to trial can give you more time to put your defense together, it also gives the prosecution time to put their case together. If you have been offered a plea deal, you can often assume they have gathered the most amount of evidence they believe they can get, but there is the chance that they’ll persuade a new witness to testify or will use the setting to amplify the case and seek a harsher sentence.
Juries (and Judges) Are Unpredictable
By design, juries are unpredictable. Judges and juries are human, and they can be swayed by the way information is given to them, by performances by the witnesses and victims, and by things going on outside of the courtroom. Once you go to trial you will have no control over the sentence you receive, other than by your behavior in the courtroom, and they will have control over your future.
Trials are Public
Trials are often public affairs and you and your family will be under constant scrutiny in the lead up to your trial, during it, and for some time after it.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU TAKE A PLEA DEAL?
A plea bargain can take place at virtually any time during the process. The prosecution will approach your attorney with the deal and once you agree to it, they will put it forward to the judge for it to be agreed upon. Your sentencing will be arranged quickly so you can serve your time or pay your fine.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I REJECT THE DEAL?
If you reject the plea deal and choose to go forward with your trial, you will have to wait for your trial date before your case can be seen, which can take a year or longer. Once your trial begins, you will be at the mercy of the judge. The prosecution will put their case forward, your criminal defense attorney will put forward your defense, and the judge and jury will come to a decision. If your sentencing includes incarceration you will be taken into custody to start your sentence.
WHAT HAPPENS IF ME AND MY CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY DON’T AGREE?
If, for any reason, you and your criminal defense lawyer can’t agree on the best strategy for you, you ultimately have the final say and your representative must carry out your decision. However, if your criminal defense attorneys feel strongly, they may ask the judge to let them withdraw from the case, or you can ask for a new attorney. Always ask them for the reason they are advising you the way they are before you make your final decision. This isn’t a common occurrence for defendants who met with and chose their attorneys personally, instead of being assigned a public defender
WHAT OPTION IS BEST FOR YOU?
What option is best for you will depend entirely on your individual case, the charge, the evidence, and witnesses who can place you as the perpetrator, and your other circumstances. You and your criminal defense lawyers should discuss your options and the likely outcomes to come to a decision you can feel good about. You should make sure you ask your attorney:
- If there is any chance of a better deal if you wait until closer to the trial
- What sentence you are likely to receive if you go to trial and are convicted
- The maximum sentence you may receive
- If the trial could turn out in your favor
Your attorney should also be able to provide you with “insider” advice about the assigned judge and what decision they are likely to make on your case based on others they’ve preceded over in the past.
If you believe you will be found guilty, or if there is irrefutable evidence against you, often a plea deal will offer you the best terms for your charge. However, if you are seeking acquittal of the crime, you must go to trial.
If you or someone you love has been charged with a crime, you need someone in your corner fighting for your rights and preparing a strong defense. Get a criminal defense attorney.
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