Being arrested can be a terrifying, stressful, confusing experience. From that point forward, things can move fast, get very complicated, and it may be very hard to know what to do or who to turn to.
Under that kind of stress, it can be very tempting to accept the first plea offer made to you by the prosecutor. But should you? Under some circumstances, you may be wise to accept a plea bargain, but just as with any negotiation, you need to make sure you are getting the best deal you can before you accept. So, before accepting a plea bargain, you should ask yourself a few questions;
1. Have I talked to my attorney?
The first thing you should do before accepting a plea bargain is talking to the attorney representing your interests, A criminal attorney will be familiar with the legal process and can determine whether the offer you are receiving is a good one. Remember, you may have some familiarity with the criminal process from your own experience or that of your friends or family, but your attorney has probably seen and handled many more cases and will have a better feel for current prosecution trends, possible sentences, etc. An attorney can also analyze the evidence against you and determine whether there may be ways to dispute the charges against you. If the prosecution realizes that its case may not be very strong, they may be willing to make a better plea bargain to avoid the possibility of losing.
A defense attorney may also cause the prosecution to offer a better deal simply because they see that you are prepared to fight for your rights. Prosecutors are paid to get convictions and usher as many cases through the system as quickly as possible. If you have a defense attorney the prosecutor will recognize that this could lead to additional work and time spent on your case and may offer a better deal just to speed things up and avoid the additional labor.
2. Is the plea offer really any sort of bargain?
As we said, prosecutors’ jobs are to get many cases through the system as quickly as possible while still getting convictions. Unfortunately, public defenders are often in the same position: they need to get cases off their desks as quickly as possible. This leads to situations where public defenders and prosecutors “negotiate” pleas to push cases through the system faster, even when your case may be strong enough to go to trial. This brings us back to the first question, as you need to know you have an experienced, private criminal defense attorney who will have your best interest at heart and give you sound legal advice without being under the pressure of getting your case off their desk. Both you and your attorney will then be able to analyze whether you are really being offered any sort of bargain.
If you have ever seen two experienced negotiators at work, you will often notice that they start off by asking for something pretty close to what they think they could get on their best day. Negotiating plea agreements are often the same. The prosecution may initially offer something just a little bit better than their best day in court and your worst case scenario. You and your attorney will probably counter with something closer to your best day in court, pointing out the weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case (missing or improperly obtained evidence, questionable witnesses, etc.). It might take a few passes back and forth with the offers moving closer and closer to something in the middle, but you are much more likely to end up with an actual bargain if you (or better yet, your private criminal defense attorney) are able to negotiate rather than simply taking the very first offer made.
3. Is this offer really in my best interest?
Given the stress you are under during a criminal prosecution, it is easy to leap at any possibility to make the suffering end. But you need to remember that when a prosecutor offers you a plea bargain, although it may seem like a “nice” gesture, prosecutors are not your friends and are not interested in representing your best interests. They may try to convince you it is in your best interest to accept a deal on their terms or risk being charged with a more serious offense and face harsher penalties. But plea bargains are sometimes offered because evidence against you is flimsy and the prosecutor believes they might lose at trial. They may offer it just to reduce their workload by getting you through the system faster. They may offer it simply because the judge expects them to make some sort of an offer to you before the court will make any rulings.
Whatever the reason, remember: prosecutors are not your friends and are they are not your legal advocates. They are not required by law to make decisions to help you or offer legal advice that is in your best interest. Prosecutors are government employees who represent the state and operate from the assumption that you are guilty. It is literally in their job description to get as many convictions as quickly as possible. They are required to do what they think is in the best interest of the state—not in your best interest.
You want to be sure to analyze whether the offer you have been given is really in your best interest. After all, there are many consequences to a criminal conviction beyond what kind of sentence you may have to serve. It can affect your ability to get a job, the amount of money you will have to pay to the state as fines or court fees, the hoops you will have to jump through as part of any probation, etc. Also, it is sometimes possible to have adjudication withheld so you are never considered to have been “convicted” for that offense, even though you may still have to serve a sentence or probation.
Also, a plea bargain will usually forfeit your right to appeal many of the issues that might exist in your case. A plea bargain might truly be in your best interest, but if you plead guilty or no contest to a charge, you waive the right to a trial and if you are sentenced unfairly, you might not even have the right to appeal the sentence. Remember, judges will usually accept what a prosecutor recommends for a sentence, but is not required to do so. As a result, the sentencing judge decides what penalties and jail time you will receive and can choose to ignore a prosecutor’s recommendations. If you have accepted a plea, you will not have the opportunity to let a jury hear the evidence and determine whether you are guilty or not, and may not be able to appeal the judge’s sentence against you.
Being involved in any criminal prosecution is a scary situation. That is why it is so important for you to keep your head about you and make smart decisions. After all, the consequences can be far reaching and hard to overcome.