What is a Plea Bargain?
If you were charged with a crime for the first time – or even if this is not your first offense – you are likely not an attorney, and there is no expectation that you understand everything that is going on. The arrest and booking process may be stressful, and you might anticipate further court appearances being even scarier and more stressful. Many people who have heard the term “plea bargain” think of it as a quick way to end the case against you and move on with your life, but this is not always the case. Always talk to an attorney before accepting any plea deals from the police or prosecutors.
The Ventura criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Bamieh and De Smeth explain what a plea bargain is and what you should know about plea bargains in California. If you were charged with a crime in Ventura or the surrounding areas, call our law offices today to schedule a free legal consultation on your case. Our number is (805) 643-5555.
What is a Plea in a California Criminal Case?
After being arrested or charged with a crime in California, one of your first steps in court will be your “arraignment.” This is your first step in court and the first chance to have your charges explained to you and to have an attorney present in court to represent you.
At your arraignment, the judge will state the charges against you and ask you something along the lines of, “How do you plead?” People typically understand that you can respond “guilty” or “not guilty,” but there are other options as well:
- Guilty plea – Pleading guilty will end your case and move you straight to sentencing where the judge will analyze the facts and presume you did everything you were charged with doing, setting your penalties based on those facts.
- Not guilty plea – Pleading not guilty will move your case ahead through the court system, eventually leading to trial. If you plead not guilty, the prosecutors need to prove the case against you “beyond a reasonable doubt” to convict you.
- No contest plea – A no contest plea – or “nolo contendere” plea in Latin – means you will accept the charges, but it is not an affirmative admission of guilt. A “nolo plea” can be helpful if you want to end the case and accept the penalties, but you do not want to open yourself to civil liability by admitting anything. In California, this is sometimes called a “West plea.”
- Alford plea – An Alford plea is named after a famous Supreme Court case, North Carolina v. Alford (1970). This type of plea allows a defendant to continue to claim they are factually innocent, but still plead guilty to the crime. This is common in plea bargaining because it allows people to say that they just pleaded guilty to accept a plea deal, but still are actually
Check with your attorney to see if there are other, less conventional plea options in your case. Regardless of how you plan to plead, you should always discuss your case with a lawyer before appearing in court.
Benefits of a Plea Deal in California
If you plead guilty to a crime, you will pass ahead to sentencing and skip the trial stage. The judge and prosecution will assume you admit fault for all of the acts you are accused of committing, and you will face the full penalties as the court sees fit. You might get some leniency because you admitted fault and are accepting of the process, but this is not guaranteed.
A plea bargain allows you to make a deal with the prosecution for reduced charges or lower sentencing. Trials can be long and expensive and put a large burden on taxpayers, the courts, and the DA’s office. Because of this, prosecutors commonly seek to have defendants plead guilty rather than taking the time and expense to put on a trial – especially if the defendant is likely to lose at trial anyway. To get people to plead guilty, prosecutors are typically authorized to make a deal.
Plea deals or plea agreements commonly require the defendant to plead guilty to the offenses in exchange for certain benefits. These benefits usually include one of the following:
- Dropping of other charges
- Dropping additional counts in exchange for a plea to one count
- Reducing charges to less severe offenses
- Not pursuing additional charges
- Leniency in exchange for testifying against a co-conspirator or cooperating with another investigation
- Prosecutors recommending a specific sentence (usually a low sentence)
- Prosecutors recommending probation instead of jail time
- Prosecutors not seeking the death penalty (in murder cases)
Things You Should Know Before Accepting a Plea Agreement
There is no guarantee that you will be offered a plea deal. In some cases, prosecutors will be unwilling to drop or reduce charges or penalties, and they will pursue a trial against you. In other cases, the penalties may be so low that prosecutors would not offer a plea deal.
You should always consult with an attorney when accepting a plea deal to ensure it is beneficial to you. A plea agreement should also always be in writing so that it is enforceable. These agreements are contracts with the government, and courts do not allow them to go back on their word.
Police and prosecutors often require you to plead guilty to the crime and waive any right to appeal your case. This means you cannot usually plead no contest and must admit guilt. It also means you cannot turn around and appeal your case immediately after pleading guilty. In many plea deals, an Alford plea is helpful because it allows you to maintain your claims of innocence but still accept the benefits of a plea agreement.
Before accepting your plea deal, a judge should offer you a “colloquy.” They will ask you questions to ensure that you understand what you are doing and understand the consequences of pleading guilty. If they think you do not understand what’s happening, they should reject the plea deal and give you another chance to fight the case if you want to. They will also check if you have been threatened or coerced into accepting the deal.
Call Our Lawyers for a Free Consultation on Your Plea Deal
If you have been charged with a crime in California, talk to an attorney before accepting a plea agreement. If you were already offered a plea bargain, contact the Law Offices of Bamieh and De Smeth today to schedule a free legal consultation on your case and learn more about the bargain you have been offered. To schedule a free legal consultation on your case, contact our Ventura, CA criminal defense lawyers today at (805) 643-5555.