It might surprise the average person to know that most criminal cases don’t follow the steps depicted in TV procedurals and crime dramas. In practice, most convictions are not the result of a careful jury deliberation but of an agreement between the prosecutor and the accused which is known as a plea bargain. This deal generally comes with a promise to reduce or remove prison charges, lower fine amounts and introduce less punitive measures like probation in exchange for pleading guilty to some of the charges or to lesser charges. But what can happen after a defendant accepts this deal? Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson explains.
What’s the Usual Procedure for Plea Bargains?
According to estimates provided by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, between 90% and 95% of criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain. Thus, understanding this mechanism is key for understanding the process and procedure for most criminal matters in the U.S. justice system today.
In most criminal cases, there’s a discussion between prosecutor and defender, where the basic facts are discussed and an offer for a plea is given to the defending attorney. These negotiations can be dealt with in a matter of minutes or they can go on for days, depending on the complexity of the case and the severity of the charges involved. Just like any other negotiation, both sides begin by offering their best case scenario and then adjust to conditions that are favorable for both sides.
The accused is in his or her right to accept or refuse the deal, however the decision is always an important one having real effects on your legal standing. If the defendant decides to reject the offer, they will typically plead not guilty and stand trial. The defendant can walk way without facing any criminal consequences if he or she is found not guilty, but if convicted this approach exposes the accused to harsher punishments than those offered in the deal.
When a defendant accepts the deal, they must agree to comply with factual agreement (to acknowledge facts stated in the case), sentence agreement (pleading guilty to the charge in exchange for a less punitive sentence), charge agreement (pleading guilty to lesser charges so that more serious ones can be dismissed) or any mix of these options.
Can the Plea Deal Offered Change?
Following the agreement by the defendant to the terms in the deal, it’s the prosecution’s time to hold up their end of the bargain and deliver the conditions previously agreed to. The prosecution’s recommendation goes a long way, but there’s no written rule about judges having to agree with deals previously struck between the parties. As set forth in Utah’s sentencing guidelines, any reason or reasons for departure from the recommended sentence should be documented by the presentence investigator. The provided reasons for the deviation can guide or contribute to the judge’s decision-making process regarding whether to accept the lesser sentence.
In practice, because of their overrun calendars most judges will at least strongly consider what prosecutors recommend in order to expedite matters. Also, a concurrent proposal of a sentence can speak to a balanced and fair outcome to a legal process. In other words: if the defendant in a misdemeanor assault charge is willing to confess his or her guilt, and both parties feel that six months of probation and a stern fine is punishment enough, the judge is unlikely to waste the court’s time in dragging the matter any further.
Can you Appeal a Harsher Sentence after a Plea Bargain?
Another possible outcome to the plea bargain, however, is that a judge may feel the prosecutor’s recommendation is not firm enough. Factors like previous convictions, the violent nature of the crime and character profile may come into play to make a judge increase the punishment, even though an agreement had previously been reached with the defendant.
In this case, a defendant has the opportunity to file for an appeal on the sentence before a higher court or another judge. If this process is won in this context, then the case will be remanded (sent back) to the first judge for a second sentencing. An experienced attorney should be able to take you through the appeal process step by step and increase your chances of a reduced sentence.
Facing Criminal Charges? Rely on Our Legal Experience
Under any circumstances, taking a plea bargain without due legal counsel is a move that could very likely lead to unfair sentencing. If you or a loved one is considering taking a plea bargain in the state of Utah, call the Utah criminal defense lawyers of Overson Law LLC at (801) 758-2287 to arrange a free, confidential assessment of your case.