By Richard McDonald
Sometimes. Once you have a lawyer, the next step is deciding to accept a plea agreement or going to trial. Many defendants believe proving their innocence at trial is the best action.
However, fewer than one percent of individuals who go to trial in a federal case are found not guilty. Ultimately, the decision whether to accept a plea agreement is yours. Talk to your attorney, explore your options and do not forget the statistics on this issue.
Is going to trial common?
No. Most federal criminal cases never go to trial. Instead, they end with a formal plea bargain between the defendant and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The defendant agrees to plead guilty. In exchange, the prosecution agrees to either drop some charges or reduce a sentence. Sometimes, they may recommend a shorter sentence for the defendant.
Plea agreements save the prosecution time and guarantee a conviction. They also eliminate the expense of going to trial.
Are there situations where a plea agreement may benefit you?
Yes. A defendant might want to enter into a plea agreement if they
- know that they are guilty and wants to bargain for a lesser sentence,
- know that they are innocent but believe that entering a plea agreement is easier and less time-consuming than going to trial or
- want to cooperate with prosecutors in other cases.
Generally, the plea agreement reduces your risk of a longer sentence. Not all federal cases are easy to defend. Usually, federal prosecutors have time to prepare before the trial begins. This gives them an opportunity to examine evidence against you.
Is a plea agreement always accepted?
No. The rules of criminal procedures are different depending on whether you’re in federal or state court. The prosecutor may demand that any plea deal has conditions. This could include a waiver of your right to appeal the sentence.
Once the prosecution and defense have agreed to a plea bargain, they present it to the judge. At this point, the defendant does not change their plea to guilty. The defendant has only offered to do so. The judge can either accept or reject the plea agreement. If the judge accepts it, then the defendant pleads guilty and is sentenced. If the judge does not accept it, a different agreement can be made and presented to the judge.
Otherwise, the case proceeds to trial. Usually, judges accept plea agreements. They are only rejected if the judge feels that they are unreasonable or not in the interests of justice.
Plea agreements are common in the criminal justice system. As long as the plea agreement is reasonable, a judge generally accepts it. Federal criminal procedures are different than those used by states.