“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy earlier this year.
He’s right. Plea bargaining has come to dominate the criminal justice system in the United States, both in state and federal courts. According to the most recent data available, about 97 percent of criminal cases in federal court are disposed of by plea deals, and about 94 percent of criminal cases in state court systems.
Yet as recently as the 1970s, plea bargaining was looked on as something improper, if not actually corrupt. The tremendous backlog of cases in the U.S. court system, however, meant that “pleading out” lesser criminal offenses was unavoidable. Anyone who has contact with the criminal justice system needs to understand how plea bargaining works.
What is plea bargaining?
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of a jury trial in all federal criminal cases (in Article Three and the Sixth Amendment), and that right was extended to state courts with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, today’s court congestion problem means that it truly would be impossible to run the American criminal justice system if all defendants demanded their jury trial rights.
Plea bargaining developed as the response to this congestion problem. Let’s imagine that you have been indicted on criminal charges in North Carolina. Your New Hanover County criminal defense lawyer would confer with the assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute your case. They would try to strike a deal: the state would reduce the charges against you, or recommend a more lenient sentence, in exchange for your promise to waive your rights to a jury trial and plead guilty to the lesser charges.
Your attorney would bring the offer back to you, along with his advice on whether he believes the offer to be a good deal. If you reject the bargain, the progress toward trial continues. If you agree to the deal, the bargain will be put in writing and you probably will have an expedited hearing before a judge. The judge has the power to reject a plea bargain, but that is very rare.
It’s important to recognize that a plea agreement is an enforceable bargain, as long as the judge knows all the details. If you refuse to plead guilty despite promising to do so, the prosecutor is free to reinstate the original, tougher charges against you. Likewise, if the prosecutor adds new charges after your guilty plea or violates other terms of your bargain, the judge can let you withdraw your guilty plea.
Can you get a plea bargain in your case?
Whether a plea bargain will be available in any particular case depends on the particular circumstances of the offense. Prosecutors like to be able to clear cases with a conviction, and a plea bargain avoids the risk a jury trial will find the defendant—you—not guilty. Judges are especially sensitive to clogged court schedules, so they almost always defer to the prosecutor’s decision to accept a plea bargain.
You should be aware that sometimes prosecutors will want more from you than a simple guilty plea. You might be required to testify against other criminal defendants in their trials as a condition of your bargain.
At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington criminal defense attorneys are experienced in guiding our clients through the North Carolina plea bargaining process. We will make sure you understand all your options and the potential consequences—jail time, fines, and other sentences—so you can make an informed decision about any plea offers.
If you have been arrested for a misdemeanor or felony in New Hanover County, call Speaks Law Firm today at 910-341-7570 or statewide toll-free at 877-593-4233. We’re ready to represent you in negotiations with the prosecutor to get the best available offer—and the best results for you.