In 2007, accused rapist and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein signed a plea bargain with the Justice Department, agreeing to plead guilty to two state prostitution charges in Florida, register as a sex offender, and pay restitution to three dozen victims. In exchange, the FBI's investigation into Epstein ended (along with that into both additional victims and additional co-conspirators), Epstein served 13 months on work release, and the details underlying the non-prosecution agreement were sealed.
While that plea deal was declared illegal and a new investigation of Epstein has begun, a judge in New York overseeing the latest charges has ruled that documents relating to the agreement can remain secret. But is that always the case? If you agree to a plea bargain, is it part of the public record?
As a general rule, most legal proceedings are public. Courtrooms are usually open to the general public; criminal charges can be released to the press; and if you are arrested, your name and mugshot can be published. There are some exceptions, however -- criminal proceedings and documents relating to juvenile offenders or victims may take place behind closed doors or involve pseudonyms or initials to protect their identity, and requests can be made to seal sensitive information contained in criminal court filings.
The same is true for plea bargains. Normally, part of the bargain is an agreement to plead guilty to a lesser or different charge. And pleading guilty to any crime can result in a conviction on your record. But there are exceptions here as well. You could ask that your record be sealed as a condition of your guilty plea. You could also ask that charges eventually be dropped if you meet certain conditions (like performance of community service or enrollment in a drug treatment program), or have your criminal record expunged if those conditions are met.
In those cases, your plea bargain (including a guilty plea) may be hidden from public view.
Plea bargaining is a serious matter, whether public or not. Pleading guilty to any offense can have incarceration impacts and financial consequences, and can possibly affect your immigration status. If you've been charged with a crime, you should never agree to a plea agreement without consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney first.