How Do Plea Deals Work?

Going to trial is always a risky proposition no matter how certain a criminal defendant may be of his or her innocence. A jury is comprised of individuals with their own thoughts on the criminal justice system, jail, and guilt or innocence, as well as with their own prejudices and preconceptions.

Despite the best possible presentation of a case, it is impossible to fully control how a jury will interpret the evidence you provide or the decision that they will reach. While one juror may find your expert to be professional and persuasive, another may find him to be uppity and dishonest. There are elements to a jury that are simply out of your control.

This means that no criminal defense attorney can guarantee that you will be found innocent in a criminal trial, and no prosecutor can be assured of a prosecution. This risk and unpredictability in outcomes means that many defendants and prosecutors would rather reach a plea bargain with a definite outcome than risk their case at trial.

Plea Bargains in Cedar Rapids

The vast majority of criminal cases in Cedar Rapids, and throughout Iowa, are resolved by plea bargain. Sometimes this is because the defendant knows of his or her guilt and wants to avoid trial. More often, it is to avoid the risks described above. No matter what the reason, if you are a defendant in a criminal case, you should be prepared for the possibility that you will be offered a chance to plea bargain.

A plea bargain is typically an agreement to plead to a lesser offense. It means that the prosecutor will still be able to deem your case a successful prosecution, but that the defendant will face a lesser punishment than he or she may be risking by going to trial.

For example, if you face multiple charges for criminal offenses, the prosecutor may be willing to drop all but one of the charges. Or if you are currently facing prosecution for a felony, the prosecutor may agree to let you plead to a lesser misdemeanor. With almost any crime, there are lesser charges that can be used during the bargaining process to reach a plea.

Typically, the plea bargain means that you will plead “guilty” to that lesser charge, even if you maintain personally that you did not commit the crime. Again, for many defendants the idea is that, although you know and believe you are innocent, you do not want to run the risk that a jury could find you guilty of a more serious offense. So the better option is to plead guilty to the lesser crime and take the punishment.

Sometimes in plea bargains, a defendant can, instead, make a plea of “no contest.” No contest means that you are not admitting to the charges as alleged by the prosecutor nor are you denying the charges by stating that you are not guilty. Instead, you’re simply declining to contest them.

As a practical matter, a no contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea and you will be charged and sentenced for your crime. On a personal level, however, it can be immensely important to a defendant that he or she not have to admit guilt and can instead simply decline to contest the charges.

How Does the Plea Bargain Process Start?

Sometimes, the negotiation over a plea bargain can start fairly quickly after charges are announced by a prosecutor. In many cases, however, the prosecutor and the defense will want more time to assess the evidence in a case and see how strong or weak their position is.

For example, the parties may want to see how certain witnesses will present to the jury and whether they are likely to been seen as trustworthy or as unreliable. The defense may also make motions to exclude certain evidence obtained in a criminal case, such as test results or evidence obtained in a search of a home or car.

If the defense is successful in excluding the evidence, they may be less likely to encourage a defendant to accept a plea deal. If they lose their motion, they may then begin negotiations for a plea bargain.  As you can imagine, the closer the parties get to a trial date, the more likely that plea discussions will begin.

Plea deals can start from either side of the table and typically will involve a few rounds of negotiation before a final deal is reached. Prosecutors may also need to consult with the victims involved in a case to get their thoughts on a possible plea as well.

Finalizing the Deal

Many criminal defendants do not realize that, just because a plea deal is reached with a prosecutor, that does not mean that the plea deal is finalized. The judge must ultimately accept the plea deal and vacate the trial. In situations where a prosecutor has dropped severe charges for a lesser charge, the court typically will not have the power to question this plea or change it.

However, where a plea deal involves a prosecutor recommending lesser sentencing for an offense in exchange for a plea, the court is not bound to follow the prosecutor’s recommendation and has the discretion to make the punishment harsher if he or she so chooses.

One of the aspects of negotiating a good plea bargain is understanding the judge that you are appearing in front of, how they view plea bargains, and how likely they are to follow the recommendation of a prosecutor who appears in front of them.

Iowa Attorneys Working with You to Get the Best Outcome in Your Case

If you are currently facing criminal charges or believe that charges are imminent, you want an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side – one who not only understands how to aggressively represent your interests in court, but also knows when to consider plea options as well.  Criminal defense attorney Jonathan D. Schmidt always works to get his clients the best possible outcome. For more information, contact us online or at (319) 423-3031.