How do plea bargains work in US Law?   no comments

Posted at 11:53 pm in Uncategorized

Answer by Tim Dees:

A plea bargain usually involves a guilty plea to one or more charges, with other charges possibly being dismissed. In exchange, the state agrees to recommend a sentence that is less harsh than what the defendant could expect if he is found guilty at trial. The state saves the time and expense of a criminal trial; the defendant spends less time in jail, or suffers a reduced penalty of fines, probation restrictions, etc.

Defendants are often offered plea bargains when they assist the police in ongoing investigations, e.g, become an informant. This is especially common in narcotics cases, where investigations often require personal introductions or transactions made by someone known to the seller. Sometimes an undercover police officer is introduced to a source known by the informant, but more commonly, the informant himself makes the transaction, using marked money and possibly while wearing a recording device or radio transmitter.

Judges are not always required to accept plea bargains. In a typical hearing, the prosecutor might tell the judge, "Mr. Doe has agreed to plead guilty to counts one, three, and five of the indictment, with the state moving to dismiss the remaining counts. In exchange, the state will recommend probation in lieu of prison time." In most cases, the judge will accept the plea bargain. However, if he feels the crime merits a harsher punishment or he wants to force the state to prove their charges at trial, he can reject the plea bargain. Exactly how this works varies from one state and even one courtroom to another.

Plea bargains are often made so a defendant can get out of jail. If a defendant has been unable to make bail and has been sitting in jail for weeks or months pending trial, he is likely to accept a plea bargain, even if the state has a weak case. If he pleads guilty, he gets time served and leaves jail on probation immediately. If he decides to wait it out, he could be in jail for months longer, and serve more time while waiting for a trial date than he would if he pleaded guilty to the charge without a plea bargain. Of course, taking the plea bargain also means that he will have the conviction on his record, which will affect him for the rest of his life. For poor defendants unable to make bail, it's not a terribly fair system.

If not for plea bargains, courts would be even more crowded and slow than they are now. There are simply not enough courtrooms, judges, or prosecutors to take every case to trial.

It's not uncommon for a case to be plea bargained moments before trial. I have come to court many times, ready to testify, only to find that the defendant has suddenly changed his mind and has decided to enter a guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) plea. When faced with the spectre of having the evidence against them presented to the court, and risking being sentenced to the maximum penalty allowed by law, defendants often get cold feet. This is one of the reasons it's so difficult to get a case into court quickly. The judge in the case has to set aside time for the trial, and when the defendant suddenly pleads guilty, there are no other proceedings scheduled for that time. It's a tremendously inefficient system.

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Written by Tim Dees on June 26th, 2014