Not every criminal case goes to trial. In fact, the vast majority are settled by prosecutors offering defendants a lighter sentence in exchange for pleading guilty and avoiding a trial altogether. The plea bargaining process has its pros and cons, with prosecutors at best seeking an appropriate resolution and punishment and at worst intimidating defendants with harsh penalties to bully them into taking a deal.
Each criminal case is unique, but there are some general considerations to taking a plea deal that are common in most situations. Here's what you need to know about plea bargains and plea bargaining, from our archives:
The prosecutor will tell you it's the best deal you're going to get. She might tell you your punishment will be harsher if you choose to take it to trial. There will be pressure to accept a plea bargain, but you need to understand a few things first. Namely, that:
The reason you have to carefully consider a plea deal before accepting it is because once you've pleaded guilty, it becomes very difficult to withdraw that guilty plea. In all likelihood you'll need to file a motion with the court to change your plea, and then it is generally in a judge's discretion whether or not to grant your motion.
When considering a motion to vacate a guilty plea, the judge will normally consider whether you have a legitimate claim of innocence, whether the plea deal was fair, why you want to withdraw your plea, and the impact it will have on the state's criminal case.
It may seem like a no-brainer -- the prosecutor gives you some paperwork, you sign it, and your case is resolved. No need for an attorney right? While you are not required to hire a lawyer to plea bargain or enter a guilty plea, only an experienced criminal attorney will be able to adequately assess the state's case against you, negotiate the best deal you can get, and protect your rights throughout the entire process.
If you've been charged with a crime, even if you plan on pleading guilty, you should contact a criminal defense attorney in your area as soon as possible.