In the state of California, if you are charged with committing a crime and the state’s case against you is weak, you may dispute the charge, exercise your right to a trial, and hope for a “not guilty” verdict from the jury. However, if the jurors determine that you are guilty of the crime, a judge may impose the maximum possible sentence. According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies across the United States made more than ten million arrests in 2015. However, only a very small percentage of those ten million arrests actually led to criminal trials.
Overwhelming, the majority of criminal charges in the state of California are resolved through plea bargains. A plea bargain is an agreement that a defendant makes with the state to plead guilty to a lesser crime in exchange for a dismissal of the original, more serious criminal charge. Both the defense and the prosecution give something up in a plea bargain, and both get something back. The state waives its right to prosecute the defendant for the more serious crime, but it gets a conviction on the lesser charge. The defendant waives his or her right to a trial and gets some leniency.
Actually, there are two ways the state can “make an offer” to a defendant:
The state may offer to accept a guilty plea to a less serious crime, or if a defendant faces several charges, the state may offer to drop some charges in exchange for a guilty plea to at least one.
In exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecution may recommend to the judge that the defendant receive a lighter sentence than the sentence that would have been imposed after a conviction by a jury.
Trial by jury is one of the most important, fundamental constitutional rights. Why, then, are so many criminal defendants so willing to forfeit that right? The truth is that most defendants in criminal cases – not all, of course – are in fact guilty as charged.
A prosecutor rarely files a criminal charge unless that prosecutor has the evidence that he or she needs to win a conviction. Still, no one can foretell what jurors will do, so prosecutors frequently offer plea bargains and settle for guilty pleas to lesser charges. This lets the state quickly move more cases through the courts, and it achieves the prosecutor’s goal of taking guilty offenders “off the street.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO ACCEPT A PLEA BARGAIN?
In California, any plea bargain agreement between the prosecution and the defense must be approved by the court. The judge will ask the defendant a set of questions to ensure that the plea is voluntary and that the defendant has not been promised anything that the court cannot deliver. The judge is also obligated to explain to the defendant the consequences of the plea bargain and of the defendant’s forfeiture of his or her right to trial by jury.
That explanation includes:
– That the defendant is waiving (in most cases) not only his or her or right to a trial by jury but also the right to an appeal
– That the defendant is waiving the right to confront the prosecution’s witnesses
The judge also must explain what the minimum and maximum sentences would have been if the defendant had gone to trial and received a conviction from a jury. After a plea bargain has been offered by the prosecution, accepted by the defense, and approved by the court, each side is then obligated to follow through with its part of the agreement, and each side also has the right to ensure that the other is keeping its end of the agreement.
For example, if the prosecutor did not recommend a lighter sentence to the judge as he or she had promised the defendant, the judge will ensure that the appropriate sentence is imposed. And if a defendant agreed to provide evidence or testimony against other defendants and fails to do so, for example, a judge can revoke the plea bargain agreement and have the defendant prosecuted on the original, more serious charge.
WHAT IS OVERCHARGING?
Prosecutors sometimes “overcharge” to encourage defendants to take plea bargains. When a prosecutor thinks one or several charges are supported by persuasive evidence and a conviction is likely, he or she may pursue additional charges with weaker evidence and then offer to drop those additional charges in return for a guilty plea on the main charge or charges.
Overcharging increases a prosecutor’s power to negotiate pleas and to win convictions. Overcharging also means that if a defendant refuses to accept the plea bargain the state offers, that defendant could be convicted of all charges and spend additional time – some might say unjustly – behind bars.
Criminal trials can be exceedingly long and costly. Plea bargains are a way to resolve such cases quickly and much less expensively. Before any criminal trial begins, the prosecutor must share the state’s evidence with the defense attorney, so if you are accused of a crime in Southern California, an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney can probably assess that evidence, determine if it is sufficient to convict you of the charge, and recommend whether or not you should accept a plea bargain.
SHOULD YOU ACCEPT A PLEA BARGAIN?
If you are charged with a crime in California, you must understand that if you are convicted of that crime at a trial, a judge will sentence you after having seen and heard the entirety of the state’s testimony and evidence against you, possibly including the emotional testimony of a victim or victims. When you accept a plea bargain, that testimony and evidence becomes testimony and evidence that the judge will never hear or see.
If you are convicted by a jury after a long, costly, and complicated trial, a judge has little incentive to show mercy, but when you take a plea bargain, leniency is likely because you cooperated and saved the court time and money. Defendants must weigh the “pros” of accepting a plea bargain against the “cons” of going to trial, and defendants in such cases in Southern California will need the sound legal advice and insights that an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney can provide.