While there are a number of ways that a criminal case can be resolved, the reality is that the majority of cases are settled through plea agreements. If you are facing criminal charges in Virginia, you will most likely have to decide at some point whether to accept a plea bargain. This is a very important decision in your case and for your life, and you need the advice of an experienced criminal defense lawyer to decide whether this is the best option for you.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea agreement is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to a criminal charge, and the prosecutor gives him some benefit for doing so. The prosecutor may agree to drop more serious charges or recommend a lighter sentence. Once a plea agreement is completed, the judge must also approve it.
What Are the Pros of a Plea Agreement?
Prosecutors and judges prefer that criminal cases be resolved through a plea bargain because they help manage their caseloads and reduce the number of cases that go to jury trials. There are also benefits to you as a criminal defendant:
- Reduced sentence. You may receive a lighter sentence if you agree to a plea bargain rather than take your case to trial. This may be true even if you plead guilty or no contest to the original crime you were charged with committing.
- Reduced charges. The prosecutor may agree to reduce the charge to a less serious offense, which has less severe penalties. If the charges are reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, you also may avoid the risks of losing a professional license or your employment due to a felony conviction.
- Certainty of the result. When you enter into a plea agreement, your criminal case is over except for sentencing. You have greater certainty of your punishment than if you take your case to trial.
- Cost. You will save money on attorney fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of raising a defense to the charges you face if you agree to enter a plea.
What Are the Cons of Entering Into a Plea Agreement?
You should understand the disadvantages of agreeing to a plea bargain before you make your decision. Some of the cons include:
- Problems with the prosecutor’s case. In some cases, a prosecutor agrees to a plea bargain because he knows that he has problems in his case. If this is true in your case, you are giving up the opportunity to raise defenses that could result in the charges against you being dismissed.
- Innocence. Unfortunately, if you are innocent, this does not guarantee that you would be found not guilty at a trial. You may feel forced to plead guilty to a crime you know you did not commit to avoid the uncertainty of an even harsher punishment.
- Coercion. Even if you are represented by a lawyer, you may feel intense pressure from the prosecutor and judge to enter into a plea agreement. This can include arguments by the prosecutor that you will face the maximum sentence if you do not agree to enter a plea.
- Not binding. It is important to understand that the judge must approve your plea bargain before it can go into effect and does not have to agree to it. If the prosecutor only agrees to recommend a certain sentence, there is no guarantee that the judge will follow his recommendations. You most likely would not be able to withdraw your guilty plea if you receive a harsher sentence.
- Criminal record. If you plead no contest or guilty as a part of a plea bargain, you will have a permanent criminal record. This can have long-term consequences on your ability to obtain employment, a professional license, housing, security clearance, and more.
Have you been offered a plea bargain in your criminal case? Our experienced criminal defense attorneys are here to advise you on your possible defenses and the pros and cons of entering into a plea agreement. Call our Norfolk office today to schedule a free consultation to learn how we can assist you.