Plea agreements are more or less an American phenomenon and are somewhat controversial. They are used to keep the courts from being overcrowded and to speed up the judicial process, but they do have their limitations. If you been charged with a crime and are offered a plea agreement, there are some things you should know about them, so that you can make a more informed decision.
1. Some types of plea agreements are illegal in your state/jurisdiction.
There are three basic types of plea agreements:
- Charge reduction – being offered and accepting a lesser charge.
- Sentence reduction – being offered and accepting a lesser sentence.
- Fact pleading – when you agree to stipulate certain facts to prevent others from being entered into evidence.
You might see fictional prosecutors on TV discuss the sentence reductions for pleading guilty, but some states, such as Alaska, have outlawed sentence reduction. Fact pleading is rare and your defense lawyer probably won't recommend it, even if it is allowable.
Some states have enacted limited plea agreements in other ways. Some restrict charge and sentence reduction in the case of DUI charges (for example: pleading to wet reckless charge instead) or felonies such as murder. Sometimes prosecutors can be get around restrictions by offering charge reduction before or shortly after arraignment before the pretrial hearing.
Federal prosecutors have been directed since 2003 to give the most serious charges for readily provable federal offenses, and they seldom, if ever, offer plea bargains. However, people who plead guilty to avoid a trial would still benefit due to an automatic substantial credit from the federal sentencing guidelines which are prepared by probation officers rather than prosecutors.
2. A judge will have to approve the agreement.
Even though the judge will have to approve the agreement, they may be subject to various legal limitations such as discussed in the above section. If the prosecutor has not submitted the agreement for approval by the judge and/or you are warned that the plea agreement is risky by the prosecutor, you may be stuck with the results. Otherwise, you may be able to appeal your conviction if it is determined that the judge was being unduly harsh.
3. It may be wise to plead "no contest" rather than guilty.
You should plead nolo contendere to the charges if there is a chance of a civil suit resulting from the incident that prompted the charges. This will still be considered a conviction on your record, but it couldn't increase your chances of being held financially responsible through litigation as a guilty plea would.
4. Many people who accept plea agreements are actually innocent of a crime, and it is possible that you could succumb to pressure to accept one unnecessarily.
Studies have shown that people can be coerced into accepting a plea bargain even when they are innocent of a crime. They may be convinced that their chances of being convicted are good, and that they would likely suffer much harsher consequences if they refuse. They are often given a short time limit to accept, and this would naturally increase the pressure to accept one. You have a constitutional right to a jury trial, and it is the prosecution's burden to prove you "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
To avoid being unfairly coerced, you would be wise to hire a lawyer to review your case and the evidence that the prosecutor has, before ever accepting a plea agreement. Your attorney would also be able to advise you of your state's regulations, or what to expect from the federal process.