SHOULD YOU ACCEPT A PLEA DEAL (IF YOU’VE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CRIME)?
If you are accused of a criminal offense in Virginia, and if the case against you is conclusive, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain on your behalf. Keep reading, and you’ll learn how plea bargains work, when you should agree to one, and when you should not.
Plea agreements are common in the Virginia justice system. Plea bargains allow criminal cases to be resolved quickly and without the time and expense of a trial. These agreements between defendants and prosecutors keep the courts from becoming overcrowded and overburdened.
If prosecutors did not make plea deals, the criminal courts would be overcrowded in all fifty states. The fact is that more than ninety percent of all criminal convictions in the United States are produced by plea agreements.
WHAT IS A PLEA DEAL?
What is a plea deal? A plea agreement (or a plea “arrangement” or “deal”) is a legally binding contract between the Commonwealth of Virginia and a defendant facing one or more criminal charges. A plea agreement resolves the charge or charges against the defendant.
Despite what you see on television, plea deals are the way most criminal charges are resolved in Virginia. Criminal trials are actually rare. Plea negotiations may be conducted at any stage of a case – before charges are brought or at any time before the jury returns a verdict.
In the typical plea agreement, a criminal defendant pleads guilty (or pleads “no contest”) to one or several charges, and in return, one or several other charges will be reduced or dismissed. But just like most other types of negotiations, a first plea offer should usually be rejected.
WHAT IF YOU’RE INNOCENT?
The right Fairfax criminal defense attorney can ensure that a criminal defendant agrees to the best plea deal available. Of course, if you know that you’re entirely innocent of the charge or charges, you usually should not accept a plea agreement.
If you are innocent, and if your lawyer isn’t able to have the charge(s) dismissed or reduced, you should take the case to a jury. At a criminal trial, a good attorney will fight aggressively on your behalf and ask jurors to return a not guilty verdict.
However, if the prosecution’s case is persuasive, the evidence is overwhelming, and your conviction is inevitable, you’ll need to be represented by a criminal defense lawyer who can negotiate an acceptable plea deal to resolve your case.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PLEA DEALS?
Criminal trials in Virginia can take several weeks – or longer – but plea deals are accomplished in minutes. Plea agreements give each side “a say” in the process, because when a case goes to trial, juries are notoriously unpredictable. Specifically, there are three types of plea deals:
- In a “sentencing” deal or arrangement, a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a charge in return for a reduced sentence.
- In a “charge” deal or arrangement, a defendant pleads guilty to a less serious charge, and the more serious, initial charge is dropped.
- With a “count” deal or agreement, a defendant pleads guilty to at least one charge, and any additional charges will be dismissed.
When a jury trial ends with a hung jury, a plea agreement is sometimes negotiated when one or both sides would prefer to avoid a second trial.
WHAT SHOULD IMMIGRANTS KNOW ABOUT PLEA DEALS?
If you are an immigrant, be sure that you do not accept a plea deal that places you at risk for deportation. A felony driving under the influence charge in Virginia can sometimes be reduced to a misdemeanor, but a misdemeanor DUI conviction still puts you at risk for deportation.
WHAT IS A “NO CONTEST” PLEA?
A plea of “no contest” – to any charge – means that you are accepting a conviction. No contest merely means “I’m innocent, but I am not contesting the charge.” However, you may consider a no contest plea in some cases to avoid civil liability.
Here’s how that works: If a victim is injured during the commission of a crime, pleading no contest lets the defendant avoid a formal admission of guilt – an admission that would be used in a Virginia civil court if the defendant is sued for damages.
If you’re the person accused of a crime in Virginia, how should you plead? If a plea agreement is offered, should you take it? These are both serious matters that you should discuss thoroughly with a Fairfax criminal defense attorney who has extensive plea-bargaining experience.
YOU NEED AN ATTORNEY WITH PLEA NEGOTIATING EXPERIENCE
The right defense attorney will be able to tell you which offer to take, which offers should be rejected, and whether you should plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. In the end, a defendant makes his or her own choices, but you should probably go with your lawyer’s recommendations.
If you are innocent of a criminal charge, in most cases, you should not take a plea deal. Let your lawyer take the case before a jury and fight in court for your acquittal. If you can’t prove your innocence, however, you should consider asking your attorney to negotiate a favorable deal.
ARE PLEA ARRANGEMENTS AVAILABLE IN VIRGINIA TRAFFIC CASES?
Traffic cases in Virginia frequently end with plea agreements that often favor the defendant. You may have to pay a fine, but the right attorney and the right plea agreement may be able to prevent a traffic violation from having an effect on your driving record or your auto insurance rates.
ARE PLEA ARRANGEMENTS AVAILABLE FOR MISDEMEANOR CHARGES?
Two types of plea agreements may be available for a misdemeanor charge in Virginia. With deferred disposition, the state agrees to drop charges, and the defendant agrees to accept terms that may include attending classes, performing community service, or serving probation.
Other misdemeanor plea deals may offer the reduction or elimination of a jail sentence. If you face a misdemeanor charge, your defense attorney will explain your options. Even if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor, you may be able to avoid serving time in jail.
Do not try to negotiate a plea arrangement on your own. Until your case is final, anything that you say could be twisted and used against you. And before you accept or reject any offer from the state, thoroughly discuss it with your defense lawyer, and heed his or her recommendations.