In almost every criminal case a defendant will be offered a “plea bargain” and, indeed, most criminal cases ultimately do not go to trial. Whether to accept a plea bargain offer depends upon a variety of factors and is almost always dependent upon the facts of the individual case. Nevertheless, generally the two most important considerations in determining whether to accept a plea bargain offer is making sure you understand ALL the consequences of any plea bargain and making sure you have confidence that your lawyer is acting ONLY with your best interest in mind.Here are some questions to which we suggest you know the answer before pleading guilty to any charge:
- What is the evidence against you? Make sure your lawyer has told you the strength and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case against you so you can adequately assess the pros and cons of not accepting a plea bargain and going to trial?
- What will you be admitting to if you accept the plea bargain and plead guilty?
- What will you get out of the plea bargain that you could not get if you went to trial? For example, if you are being prosecuted in state court in Texas and have the right to be sentenced by a jury, are you a person to whom the jury would likely give probation even if it finds you guilty? If so, why accept a plea bargain to probation and give up your chance to fight whether or not you are truly guilty given that, even if the jury finds you guilty, the will likely give you probation in any event?
- Are you guaranteed a specific sentence? Usually in state court, the plea agreement will provide for a specific sentence. If the plea bargain provides for a prison sentence, do you understand how much of the sentence you will actually serve before you are eligible for parole?
- In plea agreements in federal court, the plea agreement will usually not provide for a specific sentence and will simply provide for a sentence under the sentencing guidelines. If that is the case, do you want to sign a plea agreement that waives your right to appeal? What if the sentencing judge applies the guidelines incorrectly? If you have waived your right to appeal, you are simply out of luck? Ask yourself, what are you really getting for waiving your right to appeal? Remember you do not need a plea agreement to get “acceptance or responsibility” under the sentencing guidelines.
- Similarly, if you are in federal court and going to be sentenced under the sentencing guidelines, how much experience does your lawyer have in representing a client in federal court so that you can rely upon his prediction of how your guidelines will be calculated? If you lawyer miscalculates your sentencing guidelines, you will usually not be allowed to withdraw your plea.
- What effects will pleading guilty have on your life? If it is a “sex crime,” will you have to register as a sex offender for the rest of you life? If your are not a citizen of the United States, will you be deported? If you are required to have a special license to practice your profession, will that license be jeopardized?
- If you are pleading to a “probationary sentence,” do you fully understand the conditions of the probation and what can happen to you if you do not comply with those conditions? For example, many times a person will plead guilty to sexually assaulting a child in state court in Texas simply because they are offered probation, but then, as a condition of probation, they must participate in counseling sessions in which they must continually admit to the assault. If they refuse to admit to the assault in counseling, the person’s probation can be violated and they can be put in prison for up to life without a trial.
- Will the plea offer get better or worse as time goes on? In our experience at least in Dallas County, Texas, plea offers normally get significantly better as a case gets closer to trial and a person should be very wary about accepting the first plea offer made to them.
Above all remember that this is YOUR life. You should be given enough time to really consider a plea offer and should not be forced to make a split second decision while sitting in court. Also, there is nothing wrong with consulting with another lawyer to get a “second opinion” on any plea offer. Many people seek “second opinions” with regard to health issues and it is always surprising that more people don’t seek “second opinions” when their liberty is at stake.
It is extremely hard to withdraw from a plea agreement once it is presented to a court. You owe it to yourself to fully understand any plea agreement that you accept because it is like any other contract. Once you agree to it and the court accepts it, you will be bound by its terms for better or worse.