A Closer Look at Plea Bargains in Texas

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A Closer Look at Plea Bargains in Texas

In 2020, according to the Washington Post, Patricia Stone, a criminal defense attorney in Texas, had to tell one of her clients – a woman she had been appointed to defend against a misdemeanor forgery charge – that she could no longer defend her.

In this case, the DA in Tom Green County had taken it upon himself to enforce a policy that was relevant to Stone alone – requiring her to sign a waiver regarding her beliefs about plea deals and the criminal justice system. And it only gets weirder from here.

If you are facing criminal charges, you need the robust defense provided by an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney in your corner.

Stone’s Contention

Defense attorney Stone made the argument – in an unrelated appeal – that plea bargains are unconstitutional (as part of her criminal defense strategy for her client), and prosecutors in Tom Green County created a targeted policy in response. Stone asserts that the State was attempting to silence her First Amendment right to voice her views and that they were bent on retaliation.

The prosecution’s novel approach in this instance involved refusing to negotiate with Stone unless she agreed to sign what amounts to a waiver that states (in part), “In no way do I believe this defendant’s plea of guilty in exchange for the State’s punishment recommendation in this case to have violated my client’s constitutional rights, including his due-process rights.”

Stone declined to accept what she saw as the State's ultimatum and had to drop ten clients in the process, including the woman facing the fraud charge.

A law professor at Boston College with expertise in prosecutorial ethics, Michael Cassidy, deemed this waiver approach “highly unusual and made up out of whole cloth. For her part, Stone told The Post that the prosecutors are exercising a kind of power they were never meant to have.”

It is a lot to consider, but because plea deals are such a primary component of our criminal justice system, it is important to consider.

Stone’s Legal Argument

Stone maintains that the State is attempting to dictate the legal arguments that she is allowed to make. Further, as she sees it, any failure to comply with the State's demands on her part means that her clients would not have the same legal rights as they would if they had someone else as their criminal defense attorney.

The bargaining chip the State was attempting to use, she contends, is selling out the client in her appeals case (the one in which she made the claim about the unconstitutionality of plea deals) in order to better protect the legal rights of her other clients.

The History of Plea Bargains in Our Criminal Justice System

Plea bargains have a long and storied history in our criminal justice system. While they are well established and supported by decades of legal rulings, they have been facing heightened scrutiny for their propensity to produce unequal results across defendants.

Typically, in plea bargains, the State will offer an incentive that makes the defendant more amenable to pleading guilty. The kinds of incentives used can include any of the following:

  • Allowing the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge than the one currently being levied

  • Allowing the defendant to plead guilty to the original charge in exchange for a lesser sentence

  • Allowing only specific facts to be permitted into evidence in exchange for a guilty plea (used only in highly specific situations)

The Supreme Court holds that both the prosecution and the defendant benefit from the plea bargain process. Plea bargains amount to a contract of negotiation in which the State is guaranteed a conviction and the defendant receives a break in terms of his or her sentence.

The prosecution's motivation is to avoid long, drawn-out, and expensive trials or to spare victims of crimes from having to endure the trauma associated with testifying (or both). Defense attorneys often turn to plea deals when their client's chances at trial are deemed too risky.

The Downside of Plea Deals

Not everyone’s view of plea deals is positive. Many believe they are used far too frequently and that they are – all too often – coercive.

A defendant who has already spent time holed up in pretrial detention due to the court’s sluggish system and overcrowded docket may be spread too thin to stand firm against a criminal charge and can feel the considerable pressure caused by the thought of a far harsher sentence if convicted at trial.

Many also believe that plea bargains are too closely related to false confessions.

The Pew Research Center puts it this way: “Trials are rare in the federal criminal justice system, and when they happen, most end in convictions.” The statistics shared for 2018 include:

  • Ninety percent of all criminal cases at the federal level were pleaded out.

  • Two percent of all criminal cases at the federal level went to trial, and of these, eighty-three percent ended in convictions.

  • Eight percent of all criminal cases at the federal level were ultimately dismissed.

  • The number of criminal cases at the federal level that proceeded to trial fell by sixty¬†percent over the last two decades.

According to the Washington Post, even fewer state criminal cases go to court.

Stone’s Client

A client of Stone’s from 2016 is one of the defendants whom Stone believes was harmed by a plea bargain.

Austin Ray Carpenter was just 22 when he took a plea deal for a charge of aggravated assault – after languishing in jail for almost a year without a conviction. A year later, when he violated the terms of his probation, Carpenter was slapped with a 13-year sentence.

In response, Stone penned a 2019 letter to Texas prosecutors in Tom Green County (who had tried Carpenter initially), challenging the constitutionality of the plea bargains they make.

This is what set off the prosecution's waiver system for her alone in the first place – and their refusal to negotiate pleas with her from that point without what they have termed an “additional admonishment.”

The Nitty-Gritty of the Waiver

The prosecution’s argument behind the waiver is that it helps to protect them from instances in which – after entering into a plea deal – the defense attorney (here, Stone) declares herself legally ineffective because she allowed her client to take a plea deal that – in her estimation – was unconstitutional, to begin with. The fact is that defense attorneys do sometimes admit their own mistakes in their arguments for appeal.

In the end, there is no ethical dilemma associated with arguing against the constitutionality of plea bargains in one case while pursuing them in others. Criminal defense attorneys are bound by their duty to defend their clients to the extent possible – within the parameters of the law and with the tools at their disposal.

While one client may benefit from a plea bargain, another may not, and it is the criminal defense attorney’s job to know the difference and to zealously pursue the best defense possible.

For Stone’s part, she shared that her position is lonely – in addition to putting her in a challenging legal position. While some in the legal community have privately agreed with her legal stance on the matter, few have come out and defended it publicly.

She says that she’s shocked by this outcome and shares that, in law school, she learned to make arguments in support of her clients’ best interests and not to let the other side tell her which arguments she is allowed to make.

Plea Bargains in Texas

Plea bargains amount to a compromise. The State gives something up in exchange for a conviction, and the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. This is in spite of the fact that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

Whatever the agreed-upon consideration is, the defendant determines that it is in his or her best interest to make the concession of accepting guilt in the matter in exchange for that consideration.

Attorneys encourage their clients to accept plea bargains that are in their best interests, but the line between being beneficial and not can be fine.

Pressuring Defendants

All too often, plea deals are determined to pressure defendants to accept less than beneficial terms due to the punitive measures involved, including:

  • Long stretches of pretrial detention that rip defendants from their community, family, job, and support systems while they await trial

  • Lax discovery rules that allow prosecutors to get away with more than they should legally

  • Mandatory minimum sentencing requirements as well as sentence enhancements that prosecutors use to pressure defendants into accepting plea deals

  • An lack of prosecutorial transparency that strips defendants and their attorneys of the opportunity to make well-informed decisions regarding plea bargains

Plea bargains are routinely used in our criminal justice system, but the deals made do not necessarily uphold the due process that the Constitution affords every citizen. The fact that plea bargains almost exclusively take place behind closed doors also calls the fairness of the process into question.

Further Controversies

Additional controversies related to plea bargains include:

  • You lose your constitutional right to a trial with a jury of your peers.

  • You lose your right to directly address those who bear witness against you.

  • You lose the right not to incriminate yourself (the entire premise of a plea bargain is your admission of guilt).

A flip side to these losses is that many believe victims also lose when plea bargains are made because defendants do not face the full breadth of legal punishment that they would if they were convicted at trial.

The Upside of Plea Bargains

Sometimes, a plea bargain is a wise legal move, but it is a bad idea to enter into such a deal without the professional legal counsel of a skilled criminal defense attorney on your side.

As the defendant, the stress of the situation can seriously cloud your view and can push you to accept any offer that comes your way out of sheer terror related to what might happen (instead of basing your decisions on sound legal premises).

The benefits of a well-considered plea bargain can include any one or more of the following:

  • A plea deal may allow your case to proceed more efficiently through the criminal justice system.

  • A plea deal allows you and your attorney to maintain some control over the outcome of your criminal case.

  • A plea deal is very likely to offer a better outcome than if you were convicted at trial.

If you are considering a plea deal, it is important to go in with your eyes wide open. This amounts to understanding the charge that has been levied against you, the evidence that the State has against you, the strength of your case, your likely sentence if you are convicted at trial, and any other information your criminal defense attorney deems relevant (or that you want to know in relation to your case).

When you understand what you are up against, it sets the stage for making well-informed decisions as they relate to plea bargains. Your attorney will help you carefully weigh your options and will help ensure that any plea deal you do accept is based on the facts and on your best interests – and is not made out of fear or because the State is pressuring you to do so.

Don’t Delay Consulting with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are facing a criminal charge of any kind, you need skilled legal guidance, and Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas – is a formidable criminal defense attorney who dedicates his practice to helping clients like you make the best legal decisions for them – while zealously defending their rights.

To learn more about what we can do to help you, please contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 today.

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