Plea Bargains and Negotiations in Criminal Cases

July 26, 2023 Criminal Defense

When a defendant is charged with a criminal offense, one way to resolve the case is through a plea bargain.

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant or defense team about the resolution of the criminal case. Plea agreements often contain a certain promise for both the charges listed for the conviction and the specific sentence the defendant will receive.

Many plea bargains involve the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser offense in return for a more favorable sentence. Plea bargains can be viewed as a way to establish a “mutual acknowledgement” of the case’s strengths and weaknesses and to work out a solution amongst each opposing counsel.

While plea bargains can help a criminal case by avoiding trial and accepting lesser charges, it does raise the question of who is best served by these types of deals? This page will define and explain different types of plea bargains, how and why they are used, and how a defense attorney can help you determine whether accepting a plea bargain is beneficial to your particular case.

Types of Plea Bargains

Plea bargaining typically involves the following three areas of negotiation:

  1. Charge bargaining – During the time of arraignment, the defendant is presented with an initial set of criminal charges. Charge bargaining occurs when the defense and prosecution negotiate over the initial charges, generally agreeing that the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser charge with lower maximum sentencing. Example: The prosecution accepts a guilty plea for manslaughter in exchange for dismissing charges of second-degree murder against the defendant.
  2. Sentence bargaining – Sentence bargaining involves the defendant’s agreement to plead guilty to the stated charge in return for a lighter sentence. This type of bargaining can save both parties from going through trial and usually offers the defendant the opportunity for a lighter sentence. Example: The State and defense team reach an agreement for the defendant to plead guilty to an alleged drug offense in exchange for the prosecution’s agreement to recommend a reduced sentence below the mandatory minimum amount.
  3. Fact bargaining – Fact bargaining is when the State and defense negotiate over the specific set of facts that form the basis of the defendant’s charge. This form of negotiation involves the admission to certain facts that eliminates the prosecution’s need to prove them in trial, and in return for an agreement to not introduce any new facts into evidence. Example: The defendant in a drug case only pleads guilty to the charge associated with a specific quantity of controlled substances, even though the prosecution may have additional evidence indicating a higher quantity was in their possession.

Why are Plea Bargains Used?

Plea bargains are commonly used in criminal cases for several reasons:

  • Case management – In the criminal justice system, the caseloads can often be overwhelming for both the State and the defense. Plea bargains help with managing large caseloads and enables cases to be resolved more efficiently.
  • Efficiency and time saving – Going to trial for a criminal case involves a lengthy process including trial preparation, jury selection, presenting evidence, and deliberation. When each party reaches a plea agreement, the defendant’s case can be resolved quickly.
  • Certainty and Predictability – Going to trial can often carry inherent risks for both the State and defense. A plea bargain can provide certainty and predictability in the sense that the defendant will have some predictable outcome in the charges and penalties they face, along with the prosecution securing a conviction without the uncertainty of a trial.
  • Reduction of charges or penalties – When the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense or accepts a recommended sentence through a plea bargain, it can help them avoid more serious charges or harsher penalties they could face by proceeding to trial.
  • Case strength and risk assessment – In cases where the defense believes the evidence against the defendant is strong, they may advise accepting a plea bargain as a strategic decision to minimize the potential negative outcomes and sentence associated with going to trial.
  • Resolution and closure – Accepting a plea bargain can provide closure to all parties involved including the defendant, alleged victim, and any witnesses.

It is important to note that while plea bargains offer defendants certain benefits, you should always consult with a Florida defense attorney to understand the weight of accepting a plea and to determine if it is the right move for your particular case.

Negotiation Process 

The negotiation process for a plea bargain in Florida typically involves the prosecution and the defense attorney. The prosecution team will likely decide whether to offer a plea deal to the defense, and if so, which terms should be included in the plea agreement. The factors which may influence the prosecution’s decision include how strong the evidence is against the defendant, their criminal history, and the seriousness of the alleged offense.

The defense attorney is then responsible for reviewing all the case details and advising the client on whether they should accept the plea bargain or proceed to trial.

If the defendant agrees to accept the plea during the plea hearing, the judge must   approve the plea agreement to make it official. This typically occurs after a plea colloquy in which the judge will ask the defendant a series of questions to determine that the plea is knowing and voluntary.

Under Rule 3.171 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, the trial judge can either accept or deny the plea bargain. Once the defendant has formally entered a plea and the judge ensures that the defendant understands the potential consequences of a conviction, the defendant will be sentenced.

Pros and Cons of Resolving a Case with a Plea Agreement

Plea bargains are extremely common in the U.S. legal system. In Florida, it is no different. During the 2021-2022 fiscal year over 125,00 cases were resolved prior to going to trial, usually in the form plea bargains (see page 22).  While plea bargains can save time and resources, they can also be controversial. We have discussed why plea bargains are commonly used and the benefits of using them. Now we will discuss the downsides to plea bargains. The following is a list of some of the potential downsides with plea bargains:

  • Possible coercion – Defendants may feel pressured to accept a plea deal when the charges against them are severe. Even if the defendant is sure of their innocence, they may be talked into accepting a plea deal rather than going to trial and potentially getting convicted and sentenced to the alleged crime’s full mandatory sentencing.
  • Lack of confidence in the legal system – Plea bargaining has the potential to undermine the public’s view of the criminal justice system. Defendants who are given lighter sentencing options or reduced charges through a plea bargain may be seen to avoid the administration of justice.
  • Inadequate legal representation – Defendants may be encouraged to accept a plea deal without their public defender or defense attorney thoroughly reviewing all evidence or exploring all defense options.
    • This, however, is not the case for Pumphrey Law Firm. We vow to examine all evidence and defense options for each of our clients.

Plea bargains are not the answer to every criminal case. If you have been charged with a crime you did not commit, your first step should be to contact a Tallahassee defense attorney to review your case details and come up with a defense plan.

Example Case: Rodney Roberts

Rodney Roberts was arrested in 1996 for assault in Newark, New Jersey. Roberts was accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl who chose his photo out of a line-up.

Despite having an alibi and not being anywhere near the crime scene, Roberts’ attorney advised him to accept an offer and make a guilty plea. His attorney claimed he would be out of prison within two years if he pleaded guilty, whereas he would potentially face life in prison if the case proceeded to trial.

Roberts pleaded guilty to kidnapping on July 16, 1996, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. After his release in 2004, Roberts was committed to a treatment facility for violent sexual predators, despite maintaining his innocence for the crime he pleaded guilty to.

In 2014, new DNA evidence from a rape kit provided the DNA evidence to clear Roberts from any wrongdoing. Although Roberts’ story is a tragic one, it is not necessarily a rare occurrence. His story proves as an example of how cases resolved with plea bargains may not always be in the best interest of the defendant when they are sure of their innocence.

Contact a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida  

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, you may be facing criminal charges. Depending on the severity of the alleged offense, you could be facing expensive fines and lengthy imprisonment. While a plea bargain may be beneficial for certain cases, it is not always the easiest answer. A defendant who accepts a plea bargain may still face harsh penalties. If they are certain of their innocence, a plea bargain could result in them still facing some type of consequence for a crime they did not commit. This could include imprisonment, fines, or being registered as a sexual offender or predator.

Finding a Florida criminal defense attorney should always be the first step for anyone facing criminal prosecution. The attorneys at Pumphrey Law Firm understand the nuances of the legal field and can help explain and determine whether a plea bargain is right for your case. Contact our office today at (850) 681-7777 or leave us a message on our website for a free consultation.

Written by Karissa Key

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