Understanding Plea Bargains in San Diego, California
The vast majority of criminal cases result in a plea bargain. Understanding plea bargains in California and some of the factors to consider when evaluating a plea bargain is crucial in order make an educated decision about whether to accept a plea bargain or proceed to trial.
What Are Plea Bargains?Plea bargains are agreements between the defendant and the prosecuting attorney for the defendant to enter a guilty plea in exchange for something. That something can be the dismissal of charges, a plea to alternative or lesser charges, an agreed upon/stipulated sentence, or some other benefit. What is important to remember is that most of all, in exchange for a plea bargain, the defendant is giving up her constitutional trial rights, that is, her right to tell the prosecutor: it's your burden and you must prove the case against me beyond a reasonable doubt.
Examples of Why a Defendant May Accept a Plea BargainSometimes, a defendant may want to plead guilty to a lesser included or related offense of what he is originally charged with. For example, if someone is charged with felony assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury (GBI), he may be offered a misdemeanor battery as an alternative plea or maybe even a disturbing the peace in some extraordinary cases. Or, if someone is charged with a DUI then an offer may be to plead guilty to a lesser related offense, such as a "wet reckless." Another example may be that a defendant is charged with a fraud or theft related crime, such as petty theft, grand theft, or making a false insurance claim, and they want to plead guilty to a non-fraud related crime, such as a generic "disturbing the peace" or, in co-defendant cases, to an accessory charge. Other times, someone can be charged with the felony version of a "wobbler" (the same alleged conduct that can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony) and the plea bargain requires the defendant to plead guilty to the misdemeanor version; some examples would include criminal threats or stalking.
In situations where a misdemeanor is being offered instead of a felony, there are more obvious benefits. First, a misdemeanor conviction is typically better than a felony in most employment settings. Second, if probation is granted, there is less time hanging over the defendant's head during the probation period (since a misdemeanor carries a maximum of one year in jail, whereas a felony carries over a year in local or state prison). Third, felonies with a grant of probation typically require formal/supervised probation where the defendant has a probation officer that she must check in with, travel restrictions, and various other requirements. With a misdemeanor grant of probation, defendants are usually on summary probation (also known as probation to the court). This means that there is no probation officer to check in with and the requirements of probation are generally less demanding; do what you have been ordered to do and don't get in any more trouble.
Some defendants are mostly concerned about collateral consequences of a possible conviction of the charged conduct, and in seeking to avoid the potential of such consequence, enter into a plea bargain. For example, a misdemeanor battery charge or a domestic violence related charge carry a mandatory 10-year ban per California law on owning or possessing firearms or ammunition (but see Federal lifetime ban for DV convictions).
There are times, however, that any plea bargain offer is not really a plea bargain in that it does not supply the client a benefit. For example, a 55-year-old client wants to settle her case when charged with alleged molestation of a minor. The offer is 25 years in prison. Such offer would essentially be a deal to life in prison for that particular client because of her age. Therefore, although losing at trial may carry 45 years-to-life, the client can only benefit from proceeding to trial, regardless of the strength of the case. There are, of course, many variations of this example with less serious consequences.