When someone is arrested and charged with a crime, often, their first (and best) move is to call a lawyer. Many defendants believe they need a lawyer to help defend them at trial and avoid a conviction, and that is certainly one of a defense attorney’s greatest duties.
But a good defense lawyer can provide important and meaningful legal assistance long before a case even reaches a courtroom. That is because prior to the trial stage, prosecutors and defendants (very often represented by legal counsel) can negotiate a resolution or settlement to the case without the need for a potentially long, expensive and stressful trial. This negotiation process is known as plea bargaining.
A plea bargain generally results in an outcome that is reasonably beneficial and fair to both sides. Plea bargaining often focuses on the charge(s) against the defendant, and the potential sentencing. For example, a defendant charged with a felony that carries a serious penalty if convicted has an incentive to discuss a reduction of the charge with a lesser penalty. A prosecutor may also favor such a negotiation depending on the facts of the case. So, in this example, a defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge and accept a reduced sentence rather than face the uncertainty of a trial on a more serious charge. If convicted, a defendant could face a mandatory sentence imposed by law, a sentence imposed by a judge, or a sentence imposed by a judge upon the recommendation of a prosecutor or jury. A defendant facing those possibilities may find it advisable to negotiate rather than take their chances at trial. A settlement between a prosecutor and defendant is legally binding and is submitted to a judge, who executes the terms of the plea agreement.
Whether a defendant or prosecutor will agree to a plea bargain, or enter into plea discussions in the first place, depends very much on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. A prosecutor who believes he or she does not have a strong case may agree to reduce the charges against a defendant in exchange for a guilty plea. On the other hand, a defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge for the reasons discussed above; namely, to avoid the uncertainty of a trial. And although defendants have reason to fear the uncertainty of a trial, so too do prosecutors who risk losing a case and seeing a defendant walk free.
Another type of plea bargain involves defendants who plead guilty to the charges against them in return for a reduced sentence. For example, a defendant charged with first-degree murder may face the death penalty in some states if convicted. Prosecutors in such cases may agree to dispense with a trial and recommend an alternative sentence, such as life in prison, in exchange for a defendant’s guilty plea.
However, plea bargaining may not always be a “win-win” situation. Some defendants who are actually innocent of any charges may feel intimidated by the threat of prosecution and may choose to accept a deal rather than be tried and convicted. Alternatively, the possibility of a plea agreement may lead to poor police work and legal preparation on the part of a prosecutor since a plea agreement is, in some sense, an escape hatch for a case that is not going their way.
Assuming negotiation settlements are undertaken in good faith, though, plea bargains can also benefit taxpayers and citizens, who are relieved from the burden of paying for an expensive trial, and the court system, which benefits from a less congested docket, and prosecutors can devote their resources to more serious crimes.
Ultimately, both sides must weigh the benefits and risks of a trial in the context of the facts before them when entering into plea discussions.
Christopher J. McCann is an Orange County DUI Attorney. McCann is a practicing lawyer at the law offices of Christopher J. McCann and voted as a “Rising Star Attorney” in 2010 by Southern California SuperLawyers Magazine.