We ended Criminal Cases in Texas: From Beginning to End (Part 1) at the point of going to court for trial, which is the perfect diving-off point for exploring plea bargains. Plea bargains are one of the most common legal tools for resolving criminal charges, which makes it important to dive a bit deeper into how they work in the State of Texas.
Sometimes, plea bargains are a great option, and sometimes, they are not – but working closely with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney will help to ensure that you make the right legal decisions for you and will help to ensure that you obtain your claim’s best possible resolution.
Most Criminal Cases Are Resolved through Plea Bargaining
It comes as a surprise to many people that the vast majority of criminal cases in the United States are resolved through plea bargaining. The most salient point to make about this is that when you accept a plea bargain, you admit guilt in some capacity – often to a lesser charge – and you are very likely to end up with a criminal record.
Being charged with a crime is not the same as being guilty of a crime, and many who disagree with the proliferation of plea bargaining in our nation’s criminal justice system consider it a way to get more checkmarks in the win column for state prosecutors.
The best policy when it comes to plea bargains generally is to take things on a case-by-case basis and to always make the best choices for you in the exact situation you are in.
Consider the following statistics related to plea bargains in the United States (as shared by Pew Research Center):
In 2018, only 2 percent of federal criminal charges went to trial, and 83 percent of those who did were convicted.
In 2018, 90 percent of those accused of federal crimes pled guilty (typically, a guilty plea involves a plea bargain)
In 2018, 8 percent of those accused of federal crimes had their cases dismissed.
Further, The Atlantic shares – in Innocence Is Irrelevant – that 94 percent of criminal charges at the state level are resolved through plea bargains. And the rate for misdemeanor charges is estimated to be even higher.
If you are facing a criminal charge, there is a very good chance that the prosecution will want to plead you out, and while this is a decision that only you can make, it is important to understand the implications of a plea bargain before you accept it, which makes having a dedicated Killeen criminal defense attorney in your corner paramount.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain boils down to an agreement between you and the State of Texas in which the state agrees to give you a specific sentence or disposition for your case, and you – in return – agree to give up your right to a trial (whether in front of a jury or a judge) and to plead guilty instead.
You walk away with the certainty – and sometimes the peace of mind – that comes from knowing how your case will end (instead of rolling the dice and taking your chances in court). The state, in turn, benefits by not having to conduct a trial and by also knowing how the case at hand will be resolved (with a conviction – although generally to a lesser charge).
Negotiations: Felony vs. Misdemeanor Charges
There is a significant difference in how negotiations for plea bargains are conducted for felony charges and misdemeanor charges.
For misdemeanor cases, for example, those charged usually receive standard offers. This often means some amount of probation and some amount of fine – with little or no actual jail time.
For felony cases, however, there is typically more flexibility, and while set offers are not employed, general sentence ranges may come into play (especially for lesser felonies).
Factors That Apply
A wide range of factors go into how a plea bargain will play out, including the following two primary matters:
The facts of the specific case in question
The criminal history – or lack thereof – of the person charged
The Facts of Your Case
If the charge you face has an aggravating factor, it increases the seriousness of the charge and generally provides the state with more bargaining leverage. An example of an aggravating factor in DWI cases is if you are charged with a DWI in which you caused someone to be injured in the car accident that led to the charge.
Your Criminal History
If the charge you face is the first time you have ever been in trouble with the law, you are going to be treated differently than someone who has been through the system before (and may have spent time behind bars). The prosecution will pay attention to your criminal history, and if you don’t have one, it will generally be to your advantage in terms of plea bargaining.
How Plea Bargains Are Typically Made
Usually, plea bargains begin with the state determining what factors a reasonable plea bargain is based on. This includes multiple variables, but the primary factors are the facts of your case and your criminal history.
The prosecution has many, many cases to get through, which means it is very unlikely to do any specific investigations into yours (unless you are facing a very serious charge). Instead, the state will use the information it has at its disposal to make what it considers a reasonable plea deal for you in your situation.
It is up to you and your seasoned Killeen criminal defense attorney to help the prosecution see how your case is different – in terms of the facts involved, in terms of your criminal history, or in terms of any other relevant point.
Often, this boils down to pointing out that they are going to have a difficult time proving you did what they accuse you of doing (or of proving that you did something as serious as what they accuse you of doing). Another approach is challenging the way the police conducted their investigation.
Whatever your unique situation is, it's important to address how it affects the charge you face and the manner in which it should be resolved. From here, both sides will negotiate some resolution that is likely to meet somewhere in the middle.
If a Plea Bargain Is Reached
If you reach a plea bargain with the state, it will be committed to writing, and you will be required to sign several documents. From here, you will go to court, and the judge hearing your case will need to sign off on the plea bargain you’ve made.
Typically, the court doesn’t object to plea bargains that are made between the state and those charged because it generally has faith in the system and in the ability of prosecutors to resolve charges reasonably.
If the Judge Does Not Accept Your Plea Bargain
The judge does have the discretion to accept or not accept a plea bargain. Sometimes, a judge will deem a deal too lenient or will deem some legal factor improper and will refuse to accept the plea bargain as it is presented.
In these instances, you are not stuck with whatever the judge happens to come up with in terms of your sentence. Your guilty plea in the form of a plea bargain is predicated on the judge in your case accepting it.
If the judge does not accept your plea bargain, it is your right to withdraw your guilty plea and go back to square one, which means you can continue with negotiating a plea bargain (that is in keeping with the judge’s determinations) or can move forward toward trial.
When the Plea Bargaining Begins
The prosecution generally dives into plea bargaining mode as soon as a charge comes across its desk. The fact is that they do plead out the vast majority of their cases, which means they are set up to kick off the plea-bargaining process from the outset. This entails weighing the facts in the case at hand and devising what it considers a reasonable offer in relation to the applicable facts.
As the defendant, however, it is generally important to delve more deeply into the facts of your case. You likely have the police report, which may or may not contain all the available information, but that may be the extent of the evidence you are provided with.
It is critical that your savvy criminal defense attorney hears all about the charge in question from your own perspective, including all the facts that you can provide.
Your Killeen criminal defense attorney is also likely to do some personal investigating into your case to help ensure that you have the strongest defense possible and that – if you do enter into a plea bargain – it serves your best interests.
In other words, you and your criminal defense attorney are unlikely to run headlong into plea bargaining – prior to doing the necessary leg work.
Whether or Not You Accept the Plea Bargain
It is your right to accept or not accept any plea bargain that happens to be on the table. Only you can make this critical decision, but your knowledgeable Killeen criminal defense attorney will help you better understand the legal implications of the deal.
Your attorney can provide important information about whether or not the deal is a solid offer, is not a great deal, is a bad deal, or lies somewhere in between all of these.
FAQ about Plea Bargains
When it comes to plea bargains, there is considerable room for variability, which means that having the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions can be helpful.
What Does It Mean to Plead Nolo Contendere?
When a defendant pleads nolo contendere, he or she is taking a different approach than pleading either guilty or not guilty.
Defendants who submit pleas of nolo contendere do not contest the case the state has against them (the way they would if they plead not guilty to the charges in question).
Pleading nolo contendere, however, is also different than pleading guilty – because the plea ultimately cannot be used against the defendant in any other criminal case.
What Is an Alford Plea?
Federal courts and the criminal justice system in the State of Texas both accept what are called Alford Pleas, which are based on the U.S. Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Alford. The defendant who enters an Alford plea maintains his or her innocence while pleading guilty – based on the fact the prosecution has enough evidence to convict.
What Are Common Alternatives to Plea Deals?
In your negotiations with the prosecution, you may be able to effect a resolution other than a plea bargain, and the primary options include deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements.
Deferred Prosecution Agreements
Deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) refer to deals in which the state grants amnesty – or a pardon – to the defendant in exchange for him or her agreeing to do specific things that benefit the state.
These things may include cooperating with the authorities and agreeing to pay restitution that is appropriate to the case at hand.
DPAs are filed in the court’s criminal record, and the only way for a DPA to effectively resolve your case – and for the charges against you to be dropped – is by completing each of the requirements laid out in the agreement.
Non-prosecution agreements, on the other hand, involve an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant in which the state does not file any charges – in exchange for the defendant agreeing to do specific things that benefit the state. This often amounts to the defendant fully cooperating with the authorities regarding an ongoing criminal investigation.
Seek the Legal Guidance You Need from an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a focused criminal defense attorney with an impressive track record of helping clients like you prevail with favorable case resolutions.