A plea agreement, also known as a plea bargain, is a very common arrangement worked out between the prosecution and defense sides of a criminal case. It constitutes a negotiated agreement that enables the defendant to plead guilty to a particular reduced charge or series of charges (or obtain reduced sentencing) in exchange for the prosecutor closing the case before it enters the trial phase. Plea agreements offer all participants in the legal process, including the prosecutor, defendant, and court itself, some measure of benefit.
If you have been charged with a crime, our highly skilled legal team at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC has the experience and resources to fight hard on your behalf to minimize and, if possible, eliminate the potential consequences you are facing through a negotiated plea deal or successful defense of your case at trial.
Types of Plea Bargains
Two major types of plea negotiations and agreements take place within the Pennsylvania criminal justice system:
- Charge Bargaining- As the most commonly used type of plea agreement, charge bargaining is conducted between the prosecutor and defense outside of the purview of the judge overseeing the case. The only authority the judge has with respect to this sphere is to dismiss one or more charges against the defendant. In this bargaining scenario, the defendant offers a guilty or no contest plea to a lower charge in exchange for the prosecutor dropping a more serious charge against the defendant. A common example would be you, as the defendant, agreeing to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of opting for a jury trial in which you would be facing a potential murder conviction.
- Sentence Bargaining- A much less common and more strictly controlled type of plea agreement results from something called sentence bargaining. In this plea bargaining scenario, you, the defendant, offer a guilty plea to the charge you are facing. In exchange, you receive a less severe sentence by the court.
In many cases, prosecutors know in advance due to past experience, that the judge will agree to a bargained-for-sentence plea without even obtaining a verbal agreement from the judge in advance. In these situations, if the judge for some reason seeks to impose a harsher sentence than that which was expected by the prosecutor, you, the defendant will be protected and permitted to withdraw the guilty plea.
Reasons Plea Bargains are Offered
The prosecution and defense conduct plea negotiations and agreements in the vast majority of cases for several reasons. One reason involves the backlog of cases that exist in the justice system. Plea bargains eliminate the need to go to trial – which saves time and money – something which can benefit all parties to the process.
Secondly, sometimes prosecutors do not feel confident about the strength of the evidence the state holds against the defendant. Instead of risking a not guilty verdict, the prosecutor will enter plea negotiations and agree to a compromise with the defense, which is a plea deal.
Thirdly, if prosecution witnesses do not agree to cooperate to testify on behalf of the state’s case, sometimes prosecutors will not force the issue, and instead opt for a plea bargain that results in a lesser conviction for the defendant.
Considerations of the Prosecutor in Offering a Plea
In determining what, if any, plea bargain to offer you as the defendant, the prosecutor may consider a range of factors, including:
- The nature and seriousness of the charge(s) against you
- The victim’s wishes and/or the wishes of other witnesses
- Your past criminal record
- The strength and credibility of the evidence against you
- The capabilities and reputation of your defense lawyer
When Can You Expect a Plea Offer From the Prosecution?
The prosecution may offer you a plea quite early in the criminal process during the preliminary hearing. However, sometimes plea bargains are not offered until several days before the trial is scheduled, or even on the first day of trial.
Many times the prosecution has not fully learned and absorbed the facts of the case until the trial date is very close – thus the reason for most plea negotiations and agreements occurring in close proximity to the very beginning of the trial. This can place a burden upon many defendants in terms of financial costs and stress since all necessary attorneys’ fees will need to be paid and trial preparations will have to be made, regardless of whether or not a plea deal is reached, and a trial does not occur.
Defense Strategies to Secure a Plea Bargain
Various strategies may be used by your Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney to help you achieve a plea agreement in your case. These include:
- Leveraging the Defendant’s Criminal History- If you don’t have any prior criminal history, your defense lawyer may emphasize this to the prosecutor. The intended effect is to portray you, the defendant, as deserving leniency in the case since you should not be deemed as a serious threat to others in society.
- Exposing Weaknesses in the Prosecutor’s Evidence- The strategy employed by your defense attorney here is to poke legitimate holes in the prosecution’s case based on weaknesses in the evidence, and/or the lack of evidence to bring about a conviction. If the prosecution team has doubts about the evidence leading to a conviction, they may be inclined to offer a plea bargain.
- The Defendant Agreeing to Cooperate- The prosecutor may offer you, the defendant, a plea deal in exchange for cooperating by testifying against other co-defendants. Or, the agreement may involve testimony you may provide in another case in which the prosecutor is engaged. The decision to accept such a plea agreement should be made carefully in consultation with your defense attorney. There can be potential risks associated with cooperating with law enforcement in the realm of providing testimony against others.
Contact an Experienced Pittsburgh Criminal Lawyer
With extensive experience fighting for the rights and freedom of clients in the greater Pittsburgh area, our skilled attorneys at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC are highly adept at negotiating plea agreements with prosecutors that favor our clients’ interests. We’re also able to fight vigorously on your behalf if a trial becomes necessary in your case.
Contact us today at (412) 281-2146 to arrange a free case evaluation.