Imagine that you have been arrested for a felony in New Hanover County. Fortunately, you are represented by an experienced Wilmington criminal defense lawyer, and he has a plea bargain offer from the local prosecutor.
The question you have to answer is: should you take the deal?
Plea Bargains: Greasing the Wheels of Justice
Negotiated guilty pleas account for more than 90 percent of all criminal convictions. The modern U.S. criminal justice system could not function any other way. There simply are too many cases pending for every defendant to receive the speedy jury trial promised in the Constitution.
Prosecutors offer plea bargains for all but the most serious crimes in order to clear cases off their desks with a sure conviction. Anytime a case goes to trial, there is a risk that the jury will bring in a “not guilty” verdict. A plea bargain assures the prosecutor and his community that the “bad guys” caught by the police will receive at least some punishment.
Judges tend to go along with the prosecutor’s decision on a plea bargain in order to reduce the congested caseload in state and federal courts. In addition, there is little chance that a judge’s sentence in a plea-bargain case will be reversed on appeal, and judges hate when appeals courts overturn their rulings.
That means the control is really in your hands, if you’re a criminal defendant. The prosecuting attorney wants you to accept a plea deal, and the judge is willing to sentence you on the basis of the agreement. Your decision is the linchpin. Should you say yes to the plea bargain you have been offered?
The reasons you should say “Yes”
- You can get a lighter sentence or a reduced charge. The prosecutor may offer to recommend probation or a suspended sentence, or promise to drop felony charges and substitute misdemeanor charges. A lighter criminal record can be vitally important if you are arrested in North Carolina again in the future, because your previous convictions become factors in setting your potential punishment for new charges.
- It can save you money. Defense attorneys in North Carolina often will charge more for a long jury trial than for a speedy plea-bargain hearing.
- A plea bargain ends the agonizing suspense. If you go to trial, it can be months before your case is heard. Then there is the uncertainty of waiting for the jury’s verdict, and the judge’s sentencing if you are convicted. A plea bargain eliminates most of the uncertainty and the delays.
- You may get released from jail. If you have been held in custody because you cannot afford bail, a plea bargain that consists of a suspended sentence or probation may get you released in a matter of days.
The reasons you might want to say “No”
- You’re innocent. No, really—it sometimes happens that an innocent person is arrested. Nobody wants an innocent person to go to jail. If you are innocent of the charges, you should not plead guilty, and your attorney should not pressure you to accept a guilty plea.
- You sacrifice your legal rights. When you accept a plea bargain, you give up your right to a trial, your protection against self-incrimination, and your right to confront the witnesses against you. After the fact, it’s almost impossible to appeal the verdict or have it expunged from your record, even if new evidence vindicates you.
- Your conviction under the plea deal goes on your criminal record. A felony conviction, even one obtained by a plea bargain, can have terrible negative consequences on your future life. Even misdemeanor offenses on your record can pose problems if you ever are arrested again.
- If you reject the plea deal, you may serve a longer sentence. It sometimes happens that the judge or prosecutor will get annoyed when an “obviously guilty” defendant demands a jury trial. If you are convicted, the prosecutor may demand—or the judge may impose—a longer jail term or other harsher punishment because you wasted time for the judge and prosecutor and added to the court’s backlog. You might think this sort of retaliation would be outlawed, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a 1978 case, Bordenkircher v. Hayes, is taken as a precedent to permit it.
You Need a Trustworthy Legal Advisor
The Wilmington criminal defense attorneys at Speaks Law Firm have handled hundreds of plea bargains. We have a good working relationship with prosecuting attorneys in our area, and we know how to negotiate from a position of strength. We can work to get you the best plea deal available—and we won’t be afraid to tell you if, in our opinion, the deal isn’t good enough.