When people think of a criminal case, they often picture a trial: juries perched on oak wood benches, lawyers dramatically gesturing their hands, and crowds of reporters outside. But in reality, most criminal cases never end up going to trial. Around 97% of federal and 94% of state convictions are the result of a guilty plea.
Plea bargaining is the most common way criminal cases are resolved. If you’re facing criminal charges, it is imperative that you learn about plea bargains, the pros and cons of accepting them, and how plea agreements work in Dallas, Texas.
What is a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain (also known as a “plea deal” or “plea negotiation”) is a legal agreement made between the two sides of a criminal case: the prosecution and the defense. The prosecutor represents the government, and the defendant is accused of and charged with the crime.
Although both sides are “against” one another, a plea is a way for defendants and their attorneys to compromise with the prosecutor. For example, a defendant might agree to plead guilty to their charge (or even to a lesser charge), and in return, the prosecutor could agree to pursue a lighter sentence.
Why is Plea Bargaining Common?
Plea negotiation is so prevalent in criminal cases because most people see it as a more effective, practical, and desirable route than holding a jury trial. There can be different benefits for everyone involved in the case, including the courts, when a defendant pleads guilty.
For prosecutors, a guilty plea means a guaranteed resolution that doesn’t require the resources and risk of a trial. For defendants, taking a plea can mean reduced penalties, more privacy, and faster closure. Additionally, both parties and the court can all avoid the costs, time commitment, and other hassles of a trial by approving a plea bargain.
Types of Pleas
There are three types of pleas available in a Texas criminal case:
- Not guilty – The defendant rejects the charges against them. As a result, the case is brought to trial.
- Guilty – The defendant accepts that they committed the offense. This usually results in a hearing, where the defendant is sentenced without needing a trial.
- Nolo contendere (no contest) – The defendant neither admits nor denies the charges. The immediate result is like a guilty plea, except nolo contendere pleas cannot be used as evidence of guilt in future civil lawsuits.
Another type of plea, an Alford plea, is only available in federal cases and only in some states, including Texas. An Alford plea means that the defendant maintains their innocence but agrees to plead guilty because the evidence against them would likely result in a guilty verdict at trial.
How Does Plea Bargaining Work in Texas?
First, the prosecutor generally proposes a plea offer, which the defense can accept, reject, or negotiate. If an agreement is reached, each party signs paperwork that specifies the terms of the plea agreement, such as how you will plead and to which charges. The signed plea agreement is then submitted for court approval.
Once a judge approves the plea deal, you will formally plead in court and be sentenced, usually in accordance with the terms of the agreement. If the judge rejects the plea bargain (by refusing to follow the agreement), you are allowed to withdraw your plea.
Should You Accept a Plea or Go to Trial?
Your criminal case is exactly that: yours. So, it is ultimately your decision whether or not you accept a plea offer. Your defense attorney shouldn’t pressure you one way or the other; they should provide helpful insight and guidance on your options.
With that in mind, here are common reasons why you might take a plea or choose to go to trial:
When to Consider a Plea Bargain
There are many circumstances where accepting a plea bargain is in your best interests and times where it is better to take your case to trial. It depends on the details of your case, which is why it’s best to consult your attorney for advice.
You might consider a plea if:
- The evidence against you is overwhelmingly strong.
- You’re accused of a serious offense and worry that a jury would likely be biased against you.
- You don’t want the potential exposure and publicity of a full trial.
- You’d rather “swallow the bitter pill” of a guilty plea with reduced punishment than risk getting a more serious sentence at trial.
- You trust your attorney, and they suggest you take the deal after explaining the pros and cons.
When to Consider a Trial
The risks of a trial should always be weighed with the cons of a guilty plea. Sometimes, taking an offer is better than taking your chances. Regardless, your attorney can help you find an option that aligns with your principles, best interests, and needs.
Here are times you might consider a trial:
- Your attorney has trial experience and believes you can establish doubt in the prosecution’s case.
- You want to maintain your innocence and are unwilling to imply otherwise.
- You wish to clear your name and explain your side publicly.
- There is a realistic chance of you receiving a better outcome, such as an acquittal, at trial.
- The prosecution’s case is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
- You simply disagree with the final plea terms you’re offered.
Keep Your Options Open
You might not plan to go to trial but still wait to take a plea bargain as a tactic. This strategy could pressure the other side to sweeten the pot. In some cases, prosecutors offer defendants a better plea—sometimes multiple times—the closer their trial date approaches. This move is undoubtedly risky, but holding off on pleading guilty and preparing for trial just in case may yield a desirable outcome.
Contact Criminal Defense Attorney Mike Howard Today
Facing criminal charges can be incredibly overwhelming, but you are not without options. Plea bargains are an alternative to trial and can give you some input and control over the outcome of your case. However, a knowledgeable attorney can help determine whether you should take a plea, help secure the best “deal” possible, or possibly take a gamble in court.
Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyer Mike Howard approaches every case with a client-centered mindset and considerable experience guiding people through trials and plea negotiations. After dealing with the stress of an arrest, you owe it to yourself to find a dedicated lawyer who listens to you and will fight for you no matter your choice.View All Blogs