When you are charged with a crime, it can be an unnerving and overwhelming process. Criminal charges can be life changing for many individuals, especially since background checks can affect your housing and employment opportunities. Certain convictions can also cost more money in court fees. Knowing what to expect during the process can help alleviate the stress of navigating the criminal justice system.
Often, a case is initiated by a police officer giving you a citation or placing you under arrest. The District Attorney then has the discretion on whether to press criminal charges. Other times, a person can be charged with a crime prior to an arrest based solely on law enforcement investigations and a probable cause warrant issued by a neutral and detached judge or magistrate. If a judge or magistrate issues a probable cause warrant, officers will attempt to locate that person and arrest them.
Whether you are arrested or given a ticket, you will have an Initial Court Appearance. At this appearance, you will meet with the Prosecutor, which may also be referred to as a District Attorney or State Attorney.
In a very large majority of cases, prosecutors offer plea bargains to defendants. This means that in exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecutor comes to some concession. There are a few different types of plea bargains that can be offered:
- Reduction of Charges – You would agree to plead guilty to charges that are less severe than what you were charged with. One example is pleading guilty to Reckless Driving instead of a DUI.
- Sentence Bargain – You would plead guilty to the charge against you with the understanding that your sentence will be lighter. For example, this is sometimes seen in cases when defendants plead guilty to murder in order to avoid the death penalty.
- Count Bargain – You would plead guilty to fewer charges. This only applies to defendants who have multiple charges against them.
Plea bargains offer certain benefits to judges, prosecutors, and defendants. Plea bargains can allow for more control from each party and avoid trial. Trials can be both costly and time-consuming to prosecutors and defendants, so both sides may want to come to an agreement in order to avoid this process. Prosecutors are incentivized to offer plea deals because their conviction rate is important to their career. This gets the prosecutor a conviction and avoids the hassle and risks of trial.
Plea bargains do not go without criticism, however. While some feel that plea bargaining allows offenders to evade appropriate punishment for their crimes, others feel that it penalizes individuals who exercise their constitutional right to a trial. Yet another critique is that plea bargains may incentivize innocent defendants to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit in order to avoid jail time, a tumultuous trial, or due to financial strain.
You may be tempted to accept the first plea bargain that is offered to you; however, you should make sure you are getting the best deal before you accept. Having an attorney can help you analyze the evidence against you to determine whether the plea bargain offered is truly in your best interest. Prosecutors want to move cases through the system quickly, while still getting a conviction. This means they are sometimes willing to negotiate a plea bargain that is more advantageous for you. Having an experienced negotiator in your corner is helpful during this process.
Moreover, accepting a plea bargain means that you forfeit some of your rights. This agreement not only relinquishes your right to a trial, but also the right to confront your accuser, the right to present evidence in your favor, and your right to appeal the sentence. A judge usually takes the recommendation of a prosecutor for sentencing in a plea bargain; however, they are not required to do so.
Sometimes, prosecutors offer the same plea deal to defendants with similar circumstances, which could be referred to as a “Standard Plea Bargain.” It may still be important for you to have an attorney to advocate for you in these cases. If you have unique circumstances surrounding your case, it may not be in your best interest to accept the plea bargain, and an attorney would be able to advise you of your options.
Involvement in a criminal case is stressful and can have devastating consequences, especially felony convictions. A housing application could be denied due to a felony conviction, professional licenses could be revoked, and new employment opportunities could be limited. It is important to carefully consider all your options to make the best-informed, long-term decision. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be an advocate for you and advise you on making the best choices during a very emotional time.