Many criminal cases involve some sort of legal plea bargaining. In a typical legal plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreement to not charge the defendant with a greater crime, or to recommend a reduced sentence, or to dismiss other charges. But in the early stages of a criminal case, a plea bargain may involve pleading guilty to a serious charge in exchange for getting out of jail early. These types of bargains are not necessarily in the defendant’s long-term best interest.
Plea bargaining at initial appearance: There are practical and legal obstacles to disposing of a case through a guilty plea at the initial appearance. In most jurisdictions, the magistrate or district justice has limited jurisdiction and cannot enter a plea of guilty to a felony or serious misdemeanor. Furthermore, at this early stage, the parties have limited knowledge about the seriousness of the case and the possible defenses.
Plea bargaining at arraignment: Plea bargaining often starts at the arraignment. Sometimes this is because there is pressure on prosecutors to dispose of cases quickly, with the minimum use of court and prosecutorial resources. Sometimes this is because of the defendant’s inability to make bail.
If you are the defendant, you could face a most difficult choice if a guilty plea will result in your immediate release on probation but a not-guilty plea means that you will stay in jail. Accepting probation may mean a plea to a more serious charge, and you may end up being punished for that more serious charge later. For many defendants, especially ones who cannot make bail, being on probation almost guarantees more serious problems. Probation creates obligations that many defendants are unlikely to fulfill. Once these obligations are violated, the defendant is likely to receive a stiff jail sentence.
If you are like many defendants, you may be tempted by a guarantee of relatively little jail time right after arrest in exchange for pleading guilty to a more serious charge. But these sorts of early plea bargains may cause you severe problems in the future. If you can wait until the next court appearance, you might see the charges reduced to a summary offense in exchange for either a small fine or a sentence of time served. The more serious charge creates a more serious criminal history that could haunt you on a future arrest. It also may carry collateral consequences. For example:
- A plea to a state misdemeanor that has a maximum possible sentence of more than two years imprisonment forever disqualifies you from possessing a firearm.
- A plea to a drug offense, either delivery or simple possession, prevents you from obtaining any federal student aid for at least one year, including federally guaranteed student loans.
Having a criminal defense attorney on your side can help you avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in an early plea bargain offer. For example, a diligent and experienced criminal defense attorney will:
- Be very cautious about suggesting that you enter a guilty plea. A prosecutor’s generosity early in the process may reflect an undisclosed weakness in the state’s case. If your attorney perceives serious weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence, your attorney may advise you to hold out for a better deal later. Sometimes, the prosecutor will see that the bluff has been called and make a second, more acceptable offer.
- Consult with public defenders and other lawyers who appear regularly in the local criminal court and know the value of particular kinds of cases.
- Learn as much about the case as possible from you and from the prosecutor and police.
- Advise you that, as unbearable as jail may seem, you will have to live with the consequences of a guilty plea for the rest of your life. A conviction exposes you to greater punishment upon later prosecutions and may stymie your job prospects forever.