A plea bargain is a legal term that defines an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant in a criminal case. Typically, the defendant agrees to either plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a different set of charges. The prosecutor may accept one of three arrangements: reduce original charges to a less serious offense, drop one or more charges or recommend a sentence to the judge.
Plea bargaining has become a common negotiating tactic between prosecutors and defense attorneys. The length of a criminal trial can span days, weeks or even months before a verdict is rendered. With a plea bargain deal, both sides can reach an amicable agreement within minutes. Further, the outcome of trials is unpredictable regardless of the lack or weight of evidence. A plea bargain offers some level of control over the outcome.
Critics argue that plea bargains oppose the will of the people because of the presumed secretive nature. However, many states and the federal court system have explicit rules for how plea bargains are arranged to make them acceptable by the court.
Basically, there are three types of plea bargains available for prosecutors and defense attorneys to negotiate deals: charge bargaining, sentence bargaining and fact bargaining. In each scenario, a plea bargain is considered valid when three essential components are included:
1. The defendant acknowledges waiving his or her right to a trial
2. The waiver is made voluntarily
3. Facts support the charges to which the defendant pleads
Generally, charge bargaining refers to the prosecutor’s agreement either to dismiss one or more charges, or agree to reduce the original charges to a lesser offense. In exchange, the defendant agrees to enter a guilty plea for the lesser charges.
Charge bargaining is the most common and widely used plea negotiation. For example, a prosecutor may accept a guilty plea for manslaughter in exchange for dropping first-degree murder charge. The court must approve this arrangement, which usually carries a lesser sentence.
Lawyers for both sides may agree to the sentence bargaining method when the defendant pleads guilty or no contest and the prosecutor recommends a lighter sentence. With sentence bargaining, the original charges remain and save the prosecution from having to prove the case at trial.
Fact bargaining is the least common negotiation tactic between lawyers. Typically, the defendant admits to certain provable facts about the case. In return, the prosecutor agrees not to introduce other facts as evidence in the case.
How are Plea Bargains Negotiated?
For most jurisdictions, plea bargains are negotiated at any stage during the criminal justice process. Lawyers can reach a plea agreement shortly after an arrest is made and before criminal charges are filed. Moreover, plea negotiations can occur just before the jury announces its verdict. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, both the prosecutor and defense can agree to negotiate a plea instead of starting a new trial. When a defendant files an appeal after a guilty verdict, both sides may agree to a deal.
In terms of physical locale, plea bargaining might occur in the prosecutor’s office or over the telephone. The defendant is required to be present as the deal is placed on record in open court.
No Contest Plea Bargain
A no contest plea bargain may result in a criminal conviction without the defendant admitting guilt. In essence, the defendant has decided not to contest the charges. No contest pleas stay on the defendant’s criminal record.
However, a victim of the crime cannot use the no contest plea as evidence in a civil lawsuit because the defendant does not admit to guilt. On the contrary, a guilty plea can be used in civil court. For instance, if a defendant charged with vehicular manslaughter pleads guilty, this is taken as an admission of guilt. Should the victim’s family decide to file a civil suit, no other evidence is required.
The benefit to the defendant for accepting a no contest plea is the avoidance of criminal prosecution and evidence for a civil case.
It is important to note that the prosecutor does not have the authority to force the court to accept the plea negotiation. Prosecutors can recommend the plea deal that both parties agreed to accept. However, the court has the discretion of rejecting the agreement.
Usually, the court will review the plea agreement and determine whether the three components required are satisfied. Further, reaching a plea agreement is not always a simple process. Attorneys must have technical knowledge of the crime or charge and lesser charges that may exist. Additionally, lawyers on both sides must understand how potential or actual evidence may develop throughout the criminal justice process. Comprehension of the sentencing guidelines and separate counts also factor into how both sides will approach the negotiation process.
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