The traditional image of a criminal trial has become all but obsolete in the American legal system. The overwhelming majority of criminal convictions (over 90 percent) result from plea bargains. Their prevalence has arisen as a matter of necessity for many prosecutors and judges, since the criminal justice system has become overburdened and inefficient. In a plea bargain, the defendant and the prosecutor reach an agreement in which the defendant pleads guilty or no contest in exchange for concessions by the prosecutor. These might involve a reduction in the level of the charge, a recommendation for a lenient sentence, or a reduction in the number of charges if the defendant is facing multiple charges.
Many people believe that plea bargains are an improper shortcut that denies a defendant their right to have their voice heard in court. However, they are firmly entrenched in the system. Defendants often appreciate the ability to arrange a result that allows them to move forward with their life and avoid the uncertainty of a trial.
When to Make a Plea Deal
In most states, a defendant can arrange a plea bargain with a prosecutor at any time during the course of a criminal case. It can be arranged before the prosecutor files charges, or it can be arranged after the jury has started deliberating on its verdict in a case. A prosecutor even may be willing to negotiate a plea bargain after a conviction if the defendant appeals the conviction, and their argument appears to have merit.
A statement made for the purpose of a plea bargain is confidential. For example, Donna is charged with possession of illegal drugs with intent to sell. She asks her lawyer to negotiate a plea bargain, under which she will admit that she possessed the drugs in exchange for facing the lesser charge of simple possession. The prosecutor rejects Donna’s offer. When Donna’s case goes to trial, the prosecutor cannot ask her whether or not she admitted to possession during the plea bargaining process. The prosecution must argue their case as if Donna had never made the admission.
Sometimes a criminal trial results in a hung jury, which means that the jurors cannot reach a unanimous agreement on the verdict. This may encourage both sides to reach a plea deal to avoid the additional expense and effort of a new trial.
Impact of Guilty Pleas and No Contest Pleas
A guilty plea is an admission of guilt, while a no contest plea means that the defendant is not contesting the charge. The result is largely the same, since the defendant will have a conviction on their record either way. The defendant will lose the same civil rights as they would if a jury convicted them of the same crime. Sometimes it can be easier to seal or expunge a criminal record after a plea bargain.
No contest pleas are sometimes called nolo contendere pleas.
The main advantage of no contest pleas is that they cannot be used against the defendant in a related civil case as an admission of liability. For example, in a personal injury case based on a drunk driving accident, the plaintiff cannot use the defendant’s no contest plea in the related DUI case to show that they were driving drunk at the time of the accident.
Types of Plea Bargains
The main types of plea bargains are charge bargains and sentence bargains. Charge bargaining involves pleading guilty to a less serious crime than the crime originally charged. Sentence bargaining involves pleading guilty in exchange for the prosecutor recommending a lower sentence.
Another type of bargaining that may arise when the defendant is facing multiple charges is known as count bargaining. This involves pleading guilty to one or some of the charges in exchange for the prosecution dropping the other charges.
If aggravating factors would increase the sentence, the defendant may conduct fact bargaining with the prosecution. This means that the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a stipulation by the prosecution that it will overlook the aggravating factors during the sentencing process.
The type of plea bargain may be important later if the defendant is charged with another offense. A defendant may be able to avoid a “strike” under a three strikes law if they bargain for a different charge. Similarly, a defendant could avoid a harsher future sentence by limiting the aggravating factors on their record.