Common Questions about Plea Bargains
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Common Questions about Plea Bargains

Rather than trying every criminal case, the prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer may resolve a case by agreeing to a plea agreement. Many criminal cases are disposed of through this type of agreement. Some of the common questions related to plea bargains include:

What Exactly Is a Plea Agreement?

A plea agreement is a proctored agreement between the prosecutor and the criminal defendant. In exchange for agreeing to plead guilty to an offense, the prosecutor usually agrees to some concession, such as dropping some charges, reducing charges or recommending a lighter sentence. 

When Is a Plea Entered?

It is important to understand when a plea is entered to know when a plea agreement may be possible. A person may make a plea of guilty or not guilty at an arraignment. This is typically the second time that a criminal defendant has appeared before the judge and are usually scheduled within 30 days from the first appearance. 

Can a Guilty Plea Be Withdrawn?

A guilty plea cannot usually be withdrawn. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if false promises or coercion was involved, the defendant may be able to change his or her plea. Because a guilty plea usually requires a defendant to provide a basic account of what occurred and a defendant to declare that he or she voluntarily and knowingly made the plea, it can be difficult for a criminal defendant to convince the court of being able to change his or plea when this information is already in the record. 

Can a Not Guilty Plea Be Withdrawn? 

In contrast, a criminal defendant can usually withdraw a not guilty plea at any point in the process, including from the very beginning of the case to right before the jury reads their verdict. For this reason, many criminal defendants often plead not guilty at arraignment and then change the plea to guilty after reaching a favorable plea agreement. 

Who Decides Whether the Defendant Pleads Guilty or Not Guilty? 

The criminal defendant has the right to determine whether to plead guilty or not guilty. While his or her lawyer may provide advice about which way he or she should plead, the defendant has the ultimate decision. 

When Can a Plea Bargain Be Made? 

A plea bargain may be made at any point in the process before the jury reaches a verdict. However, the most common time for a plea bargain to be made is after the arraignment but before the pre-trial hearing. However, a plea bargain may be made after a key event in the process, such as a motion being ruled in favor of the prosecution or the defendant. If a key witness becomes unavailable or recounts his or her story, a plea bargain may be made. 

If the prosecution starts to believe that the jury may find in favor of the defendant during the trial, a plea agreement may be offered during the trial. If there was a long-term investigation, a plea agreement may even be made before the defendant is actually arrested. 

What Rules Are There Regarding Plea Agreements? 

There are often guidelines established by states regarding plea agreements. The district attorney may have to approve certain plea agreements that prosecutors make. States may prohibit plea bargaining for certain types of cases. Some states also establish specific deadlines at which point a plea agreement must be reached if at all. 

Does the Defendant Have a Right to a Plea Bargain?

If a plea agreement is reached, it is an agreement between the state and the defendant. However, the state is under no obligation to offer a defendant a plea bargain as such offers are made on a discretionary basis. If the crime is a serious one or if the defendant has an extensive criminal history, the prosecutor may decide not to provide a plea agreement. Additionally, plea agreements are subject to acceptance by the judge overseeing the case, and a judge may reject such an agreement. 

What Are the Benefits of Taking a Plea Agreement? 

A plea agreement can provide important benefits to a defendant. He or she can receive a lighter sentence, have charges dropped or have charges reduced. He or she can also move along with life faster and save expenses for a criminal defense lawyer. There are benefits to the state, including the ability to save time and money. 

What Rights Does a Criminal Defendant Forfeit?

However, the criminal defendant has to forfeit some rights, including the right to a jury trial, the right to confront his or her accuser, the right to present evidence in his or her favor and the right to cross-examine witnesses. He or she also waives the right to an appeal.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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