What is a Plea Agreement? And What happens if I accept it?
This article discusses what a plea agreement is and what happens if you accept it. A plea agreement is an agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor. Generally, a plea agreement is a contract whereby the defendant will agree to do something (usually plea guilty) and in return the prosecutor will offer some concession in the form of a lighter sentence or allocute (ask the court) in a way that gives some benefit to the defendant. The main point in the plea agreement is that the defendant will give up his constitutional right to have a trial and in return he or she will receive some benefit from the government.
As great as it may sound – never listen to an attorney that says he never negotiates or never makes plea deals with the prosecutor. The attorney would be doing you a complete disservice especially if he makes a guarantee that he can beat the case or fails to negotiate with the prosecutor. In fact, the Supreme Court of the United States recently held that a defense attorney owes a duty of competence during plea negotiations. It makes complete sense that an attorney should owe a duty to investigate, consult and prepare the case during plea negotiations since approximately 90 percent of the persons charged in criminal justice system either plead guilty or accept some form of diversion.
If you accept the plea agreement you are giving up some of your most important constitutional rights; and therefore, it should be not be taken lightly.
If you are charged with a felony or high misdemeanor (a misdemeanor that carries more than 180 days) you would be entitled to a jury trial. You would be waiving a right to have the government present its case to 12 citizens of the community to decide whether you are guilty of the offenses charged. If you are charged with an offense that carries less than 180 days (less than 6 months) than you would have a bench trial where one sitting Judge would make the decision of whether you are guilty.
You would be given be up the right for your lawyer to call witness on your behalf and to challenge the government’s witness. It is your absolute right to confront your accuser in open court. You would also be waiving other constitutional rights such as the right to present constitution motions challenging whether your rights were violated during the police procedure of the case. After pleading guilty you could not go back and make these claims as they would be waived by pleading.
Pleading guilty you are accepting the government’s case and you are agreeing that they could prove you did the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pleading guilty before a Judge (usually the trial Judge) also means that you are waiving your right to have your case heard before a higher appellate court. If you went to trial and lost a higher appellate court could check to make sure that the trial was fair and appropriate, and no serious mistakes were made by the trial Judge. However, you still retain the right to appeal the case if the trial Judge gives you an improper sentence (very rare).
Lastly, if you are not citizens of the United States a plea of guilty can result in deportation or admission from to the United States or denial of naturalization.
So, although the vast majority persons coming through the criminal justice system accept a plea agreement, people should realize that when they say they are guilty of the charges there are a lot of rights that are given up. It should not be taken lightly.