According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, guilty pleas in 1996 accounted for 91 percent of felony convictions in state courts. I presume this figure has remained approximately the same until now. Without guilty pleas, the court system would shut down because the government cannot conduct trials in every criminal case it’s handling.
There is usually benefit to the defendant as well for pleading a case out. Most importantly, the government usually offers a reduced sentence if the defendant pleads his case out and does not force the state to trial. Additionally, guilty pleas tend to be less expensive for the defendant than going to trial. At our firm, our fees are reduced if there’s no trial since preparing for a trial is very time consuming if done correctly. Nevertheless, we initially prepare every case for trial just in case.
However, in some instances the defendant should refuse the state’s offer and proceed to trial. Knowing when to do so is critical. This paper offers some helpful suggestions on when to accept the government’s plea offer or not. This information is not close to exhaustive and should NOT take the place of sound legal counsel. Moreover, most of the suggestions here are based on Texas law.
First, you need an experienced attorney advising you in every felony case and many misdemeanor cases before negotiating and/or agreeing to a plea bargain. This should not be a problem because the state will appoint you an attorney in most criminal cases if you cannot afford to hire one. Make sure your attorney is an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows criminal law. A personal injury attorney for instance will probably not be helpful with a criminal case.
Second, have your attorney obtain all the discovery in your case before you accept a plea. This step is critical because you will learn what evidence the state has to prove its case against you. Remember, the state has the burden of proving its case beyond all reasonable doubt. If its evidence is weak therefore the government tends to offer better plea deals. I tell my clients all the time, it’s not what you did but what the government can prove you did beyond all reasonable doubt.
Third, have your attorney explain to you all your options. For example, in Texas, instead of a regular plea, a defendant has the options of a jury or bench trial or an open or slow plea. A bench trial is when the judge, not jury, decides guilt or innocence and accesses the punishment. An open plea is when the defendant pleas guilty before the judge and allows the judge to access the punishment. On the other hand, a slow plea is when the defendant pleas guilty before the judge but allows the jury to access his punishment. There are advantages and disadvantages connected with all the above options. Make sure your attorney explains them to you thoroughly.
Fourth, make sure you thoroughly discuss with your attorney the punishment range and potential collateral consequences of a guilty plea. This will aid you in understanding whether the deal the government is offering you is acceptable. Additionally, you will be fully aware of how your guilty plea will affect your life outside the courtroom. Often, clients accept plea deals in haste not knowing that it will negatively affect their families, marital status, housing, immigration status, job or other areas of their lives.
Fifth, if you are contemplating accepting probation and your case is in Texas, make sure your attorney explains to you the advantages, disadvantages and differences between straight probation and deferred adjudication as well as the conditions of probation. This information will impress upon you the seriousness of being on probation and the possible outcome if you violate your probation and are brought back before the judge.
Finally, don’t be afraid to go to trial if you believe your case is winnable or the outcome of a guilty verdict will not be much worst than a guilty plea. However, no one can assure you that the outcome of a trial will be positive because juries are unpredictable. Sometimes they render totally unexpected verdicts.
Again, this information is not intended as legal advice. However, hopefully it will help you ask your attorney good questions before accepting a plea deal.