Plea Bargaining: Is it in Your Best Interest or a Way to Sidestep Justice?
In spite of the constitutional right that a person accused of a serious crime has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, jury trials have become extremely rare. Most criminal cases are now concluded by plea bargains. These can work in several ways, but the most typical is that a defendant is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser crime and receive a lesser sentence. In some cases, a defendant is offered a better deal in exchange for providing information or names of others who may have committed offenses or for testifying against a co-defendant.
Another type of plea bargain is called an Alford plea, in which the defendant enters a plea of guilty while maintaining innocence in exchange for a lighter sentence. In the typical case, to enter a guilty plea the accused must admit guilt verbally before a judge. In an Alford plea, the defendant states to the judge that he is not guilty but not willing to risk a conviction. There must be enough evidence that a conviction at trial is a strong possibility, or the judge should reject the Alford plea.
Ninety-four percent of state cases nationwide and ninety-seven percent of federal cases are disposed of in plea bargains.
Who Benefits and Who Suffers in a System Dominated by Plea Bargaining
A plea bargain punishes a supposed criminal but spares the court the time and expense that would go into a trial, which is why judges like it, and it may possibly, in certain situations, help reduce prison overcrowding by offering probation in lieu of time behind bars.
In cases where the law imposes mandatory sentences for the crime of which a defendant is accused, plea bargaining can allow a judge to avoid imposing a harsh mandatory sentence by accepting a plea for a lesser charge. In this regard, it may be a positive for the accused.
A plea bargain also helps the prosecutor get a conviction without the risk of losing at trial. A high conviction rate enhances a prosecutor’s reputation and career.
In theory, the system offers the defendant the advantages of a less harsh sentence, possible without jail time, a less serious criminal charge on record, and reduced legal expenses for those with private attorneys. While these are advantages to a defendant who is actually guilty and can afford private defense counsel, the system may offer serious disadvantages to an indigent defendant has been wrongly accused but is terrified of the possibility of a wrongful conviction, especially a defendant who is represented by an overworked public defender motivated to dispose of the case quickly and move on to the next.
There are many cases where pressure to enter into a plea bargain results in a miscarriage of justice and an innocent party is frightened into a plea agreement. A defendant should discuss the ramifications of entering into a pleas agreement with his attorney. Below are stories, based on actual cases, where defendants rejected and accepted plea bargains.
One Florida woman, Mary (name changed to protect the defendant’s privacy), was charged with driving on a suspended license. Her teenage daughter had jumped tolls several times in another city where she was attending college. The daughter had promised to pay the fines but had not followed through. Mary was pulled over on a minor traffic infraction and the police officer discovered that he license had just been suspended. She had not received notice of the suspension, which arrived by mail two days after the traffic stop. Prosecutors threatened to charge her with a felony (“knowingly driving with a suspended license”). She could theoretically be given jail time.
A public defender attempted to push her to plead guilty to the prosecutor’s offer of a misdemeanor charge and with a fine of several hundred dollars. The public defender was openly insulting to Mary in court, telling the judge that the defendant “did not understand” the offer. Mary was well-educated, had a better-than-average knowledge of the law, and knew she was not guilty. She was fortunate to have attended law school and worked in the legal field (although she was not a licensed attorney), which helped her overcome her lack of private counsel. She stuck by her guns and the charges were eventually dropped entirely. Her daughter paid the fines and Mary’s license was reinstated. By refusing to be frightened into a plea deal, she kept her record clean.
A more serious recent case had a horribly worse outcome. A Florida man, we’ll call him Jeffrey (not his real name), was arrested in another state and charged with the rape of a young child, the daughter of his live-in girlfriend. No rape kit was taken and there were no witnesses. The only evidence was the word of a child who had been only four years old at the time of the alleged incident, testimony that could have been coached. The child had told her mother that she had been molested by two of her cousins, both juveniles, but the mother was also facing charge of child endangerment and her lawyer advised her to deny knowing anything about it. Jeffrey adamantly maintains his innocence. He was facing two counts of sexual assault on a child, each with a mandatory sentence in excess of 20 years, and the prosecutor told him that because of the heinous nature of the allegations and his prior record, which did not include a single sexual offence, and because of his unsavory physical appearance due to badly decayed teeth, that his chance of winning at trial was minimal. Unless he accepted a plea deal in which one of the two counts would be dropped, he faced a real possibility of being convicted on both counts, which would mean he would probably never experience freedom in his lifetime.
In his fear and hopelessness Jeffrey took an Alford plea, accepting a prison sentence of more than 20 years without admitting guilt. His mother has now contacted the Innocence Project for help. Because there was no physical evidence, no DNA, and no history of sexual misconduct, it appears likely that a good criminal defense lawyer with successful trial experience might well have been able to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors and won him an acquittal at trial, but he had only a public defender.
Although public defenders are often well-intentioned, they may have several hundred active cases at any given and simply do not have the time or resources to pull out all the stops and prepare a thorough and aggressive defense. Public defenders are usually expected to dispose of cases as quickly and efficiently as possible without burdening the courts with trials if it can be helped, and they typically lean heavily on plea bargains to dispose of cases.
Get Competent Advice from an Experienced Trial Attorney before Accepting a Plea Agreement
The lesson to be learned is that if you’ve been accused of a crime and are innocent, fight with all the resources you can gather and move heaven and earth to get yourself a good private defense attorney who is experienced in arguing well-prepared cases to juries.
This is not to say that a plea bargain is never going to be in your favor. Depending on the circumstances of your case and the quality of evidence against you, it may very well be the best way to resolve your case. But unless you have a lawyer whom you trust, one who is thoroughly committed to your very best interests, and is willing and able to go to trial if the situation calls for it, you could find yourself railroaded into a plea agreement that comes with a punishment you don’t deserve. And if a plea bargain is in your best interests, you should feel confident that the attorney you’ve hired is a skilled negotiator who will be able to obtain the most favorable terms the circumstances of your case allow.
If you or someone you love has been accused of a crime, you or your loved one may be facing the possibility of a criminal conviction that will follow you for the rest of your life, in addition to the potential loss of freedom if sentenced to years in prison. Don’t go down without a fight. Call the Law Firm of Stephen Maltezos immediately and learn what legal options are available.