A plea bargain (also plea agreement, plea deal or copping a plea) is any agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor. This may mean that the defendant will plead guilty to a less serious charge, or to one of several charges, in return for the dismissal of other charges; or it may mean that the defendant will plead guilty to the original criminal charge in return for a more lenient sentence.In America, “ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas. Plea agreements are made without full discovery of the facts and evidence and many plea deals are made without the the assistance of an attorney. Unfortunately, counsel does not have a duty to inform a defendant of all the collateral consequences of his guilty plea.
The judge, not the prosecutor, makes the final determination to approve a plea agreement. The court is not bound by the plea bargain between the prosecutor and the defendant. If after the defendant enters his plea, the court decides that it will not abide by the plea and sentence accordingly, the court must then, on the record, clearly advise the defendant of his right to withdraw the plea. The defendant will usually be given an opportunity to withdraw the guilty plea if the agreement is not approved by the judge.
If you plead guilty in a plea bargain and then later withdraw guilty plea, the fact that you originally pled guilty can not be used as evidence against you during a trial. It is prejudicial error to permit the state to use a withdrawn plea of guilty in the trial. Rule 24.02(d)(5) also bars the use of a withdrawn plea of guilty. It states in part:
“Evidence of a plea of guilty, later withdrawn, or if an offer to plead guilty to the crime charged or of any other crime, or of statements made in connection with, and relevant to any of the foregoing pleas or offers, is not admissible in any civil or criminal proceeding against the person who made the plea or offer.”
The use of the withdrawn plea of guilty, and statements made in connection with it, constitutes reversible error and requires the judgment to be reversed and the cause remanded for new trial.
The following video documents the story of Regina Kelly of Hearne, TX. The prosecutor tried to coerce Ms. Kelly who was innocent to accept a plea deal. Although this does not concern a municipal violation, however, it does illustrate why knowledge of the legal system is critical. There was a movie titled “American Violet“, based upon her story.
From PBS Frontpage: The Plea – FAQ. Law professor Stephen Schulhofer offers this general critique of the system: “The major problem with plea bargaining is that it forces the party into a situation where they have to take a guess about what the evidence is, about how strong the case might be, and they have to make that guess against the background of enormously severe penalties if you guess wrong. So defendants, even if they have strong defenses, and even if they are innocent, in fact face enormous pressure to play the odds and to accept a plea. And the more likely they are to be innocent, and the more strong their defenses are, the bigger discount and the bigger benefits the prosecutor will offer them. Eventually at some point it becomes so tempting that it might be irresistible, especially when the consequences of guessing wrong are disastrous.
“So the result is that the system as a whole doesn’t do what we count on it to do, which is to sort out the guilty people from the innocent people. It doesn’t do that because the guilty people and the innocent people are all faced with the same pressure to plead guilty.”
You’re charged with a crime and have the right to face your accusers at trial, to be judged by a jury of your peers. Then why do fewer than 3% of defendants ever get that far?
On this edition of Due Process, the phenomenon of the plea deal is explored, beginning with a look inside Judge Martin Cronin’s Essex County courtroom, where, two days a week, one guilty plea after another is entered in return for a reduced sentence. Is it fear? Is it coercion? Why do so few choose to take their chance at trial? And could some of them be innocent?