Plea bargaining: understanding the basics
Not every criminal case goes through the process of a lengthy trial. Defendants often resolve their case through a plea bargaining agreement.
Let’s look into the plea bargain process in Utah, when it is available, and its pros and cons on sentencing.
What is a plea bargaining?
A plea bargain or “plea offer,” is the negotiation between the prosecution and the defendant in a criminal case. The defendant, through their counsel, offers to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge, reduced fine, lighter sentence, or probation and/or dismissal.
Let’s say you’re charged with possession of methamphetamine, a Schedule II controlled substance. This is a third-degree felony under Utah Controlled Substances Act. You can go to trial, and if found guilty of this charge, you will face a 10-year prison sentence, a $5,000 fine, or both.
In the alternative, you can reach a plea deal with the prosecutor. For example, you can plead guilty to a lesser offense, like possession of drug paraphernalia, which is a Class B misdemeanor. Here, you face a maximum sentence of six (6) months in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000, compared to your supposed initial sentence of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. You could also enter into a plea in abeyance, where you provisionally plead guilty. The court will not enter your guilty plea on the record but wait until you complete a probationary period. If you don’t get additional criminal charges during that period and pay a fine, the court will dismiss your original charge and close the case.
Put simply, plea bargaining is an attempt to get a reduced sentence or smaller fine. If you have a knowledgeable and experienced lawyer on your side, they can help you decide whether to accept or reject a plea offer. In some cases, a felony charge can even be reduced to a misdemeanor charge with a probationary period.
The pros and cons of plea bargaining
Choosing to plea bargain can be appealing for many different reasons, but it’s important to know both the pros and cons of this process. Here is a table of possible advantages and disadvantages to a plea bargain:
|PROS TO PLEA BARGAINING
|CONS TO PLEA BARGAINING
|Eliminates the cumbersome and expensive trial
|You may lose the opportunity to be acquitted by the jury and to be heard, especially if you’re innocent
|Gives you the chance to serve a lighter sentence, especially for less serious charges
|The judge can reject a plea bargain and impose a heavier sentence
|Increases efficiency of the courts and reduces the number of pending cases
|Can result in a permanent entry on your criminal record
|Prohibition form getting security clearance or other licenses
|Fewer hearing dates
|Difficulty of getting employment and qualifying for public housing
|Saves witnesses from having to testify
|You can no longer file for an appeal
The advantages or disadvantages of any plea bargain must be determined on a case-by-case basis. You may have previous charges or convictions that could influence the judge to turn down your plea. There are also serious charges that carry mandatory prison time or a fine, which means a judge cannot permit you to plead to a lesser sentence.
Talk to our lawyers at Liberty Law
It’s best to consult your lawyer before you make a decision. Your lawyer will determine if a plea bargaining agreement is the best option for you or if taking your case to court is a better decision. Remember that the burden to prove your guilt is on the prosecution, so it may be worth the risk to take your case to court.