What is a Plea Deal?
A plea deal is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant to resolve a criminal case. In a plea deal, the defendant agrees to give up his or her right to a trial and accept responsibility for their charge by pleading guilty or pleading no contest. In exchange, the prosecutor will dismiss certain charges, reduce certain charges, or agree to recommend a specific sentence to the sentencing judge.
Plea deals are usually accomplished with the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. In fact, most criminal cases are resolved by plea deals, allowing both the prosecutor and defendant to avoid criminal trials’ uncertainty and expense.
What is a Guilty Plea?
In most plea deals, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or more criminal charges. When a defendant pleads guilty, he or she admits to some sort of specific criminal conduct to the court. Any guilty plea must be knowing and voluntary.
A knowing plea means that a defendant understands the terms and consequences of a guilty plea. A guilty plea is voluntary when the defendant is not coerced by the prosecution or another party to accept the plea. Importantly, a defendant has a Constitutional right to a jury trial, meaning they can never be required to plead guilty to an offense.
What is a No Contest Plea?
In some plea deals, a plea of “no contest” is allowed. In a no-contest plea, the defendant does not admit to any actual wrongdoing but chooses not to contest the charge(s) any further. The court can accept this plea and will treat the defendant as if the defendant actually pled guilty.
No contest pleas are allowed when:
- The defendant faces the potential for civil liability, or
- If the defendant does not remember committing the crime due to some impairment
If a defendant later faces a civil lawsuit for the same alleged conduct, the defendant’s no contest plea cannot be used as evidence of guilt. If a defendant pleads guilty as opposed to no contest, that guilty plea might be used in a civil trial to prove liability.
Why Are Plea Deals So Common?
Plea deals account for more than 90% of criminal convictions. They are common because they offer a certain result for the prosecution and the defense. When a plea deal is made, the defendant can be relieved of a significant level of uncertainty relating to both the charges and potential punishment.
For example, say a person gets arrested for a DUI and does not wish to fight the case. A prosecutor might agree to fine the person or impose community service rather than a jail sentence if the defendant pleads guilty to the offense. The defendant could thereby avoid jail time by pleading guilty.
When Can Plea Deals Occur?
Plea deals can be made at any stage of a criminal case before and even during a trial. They can even be made before any criminal charges are authorized. In most cases, a plea deal is made before the date of trial, as it is usually in everyone’s best interest to avoid the uncertainty and expense of criminal trials.
If a case does make it to trial, parties can agree to a plea deal at any point up until the court or jury reaches a verdict. If a trial ends up in a hung jury, parties can make a plea deal before charges are reauthorized.
California’s Proposition 8 Against Plea Deals for Certain Cases
In 1982, California voters passed Proposition 8, a law that prohibited plea bargaining between prosecutors and defendants after defendants have been charged through an “information” or indictment. An “information” is a document that authorizes formal criminal charges against a defendant. This document is usually issued after a preliminary hearing.
An indictment is also a document that authorizes criminal charges against a defendant, but a grand jury issues an indictment.
Under Proposition 8, plea deals are not allowed after an information or indictment is issued for specific cases, including:
- A serious felony
- Specific violent sex crimes
- Any felony alleging the use of a gun
- Any driving under the influence (DUI) offense
Plea deals for the charges listed under Proposition 8 continued despite the passing of the law. Prosecutors and defense attorneys simply started making their agreements earlier in the process. Proposition 8 only banned plea deals after an information or indictment was issued, not prior.
Don’t Take Any Plea Deals Without Speaking to An Attorney First
It is essential that you have an experienced criminal defense attorney review your case before you agree to take any offered plea deals. We offer a free consultation so you can have your case reviewed and legal questions answered by an experienced professional.