If you have been charged with a crime in Palm Beach County or elsewhere in South Florida, and if the state’s evidence against you is weak, you may choose to fight the charge aggressively, take the case to a trial, and hope that the jury returns a “not guilty” verdict. However, if you make that choice and the jury decides that you are guilty as charged, that verdict gives a judge the authority to impose the maximum sentence. In some cases, an experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney may advise you to avoid a trial and accept a plea bargain instead.
Although trial by jury is a constitutional right, the fact is that most criminal cases in South Florida are resolved with no trial and no need for a trial. About ninety percent of all criminal cases are settled with plea bargains. A plea bargain is an agreement that a defendant makes with the state. It usually means pleading guilty to a lesser charge – and accepting the penalty for that lesser charge – in return for a dismissal of the original, more serious charge.
Why do so many defendants waive their right to a trial by a jury of their peers? Why are so many cases resolved by plea bargains? It starts with the fact that most criminal defendants – although certainly not all of them – are in fact guilty of the crimes they are charged with. How do we know this? Because prosecutors only file charges in cases that they think they can win. For a large number of crimes, no one is ever prosecuted. If a prosecutor believes that the evidence against a suspect is tainted or that the witnesses in the case are unreliable, that prosecutor will probably decline to file any charges.
WHY ARE PLEA BARGAINS OFFERED?
Thus, by the time a criminal charge is filed against a suspect, the state probably has a case that is quite persuasive, and the prosecutor probably believes that he or she can prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Still, some cases are stronger than others, and no one can read the minds of the jurors or predict what they will do, so a conviction is never guaranteed to a prosecutor. When the case against a criminal defendant is not rock-solid, or when the prosecutor knows that your defense attorney is a formidable opponent, that prosecutor may offer a plea bargain and settle for a guilty plea to a lesser charge.
One tactic prosecutors sometimes use to induce defendants to accept plea bargains is called “overcharging.” If a prosecutor believes that one or more of the charges against a defendant are strong charges backed by convincing evidence, that prosecutor may file other charges even if the evidence for those charges is weaker. Prosecutors overcharge to boost their negotiating power and to win convictions on the charges they believe are important.
Overcharging can put a criminal defendant in serious jeopardy, because if a defendant who is overcharged refuses to accept the state’s plea bargain offer, that defendant conceivably could be found guilty on all counts and face years in prison – unjustly. Prosecutors use the possibility of multiple criminal convictions to persuade criminal defendants to accept the plea bargains they offer.
Most crimes are not anything like what you see on television or in the movies. Most crimes are not puzzles, and most criminals are nothing like “masterminds.” The overwhelming majority of everyday thefts, frauds, robberies, and assaults are investigated easily, and those investigations almost always lead quickly to a suspect who is in fact guilty.
Because the law requires a prosecutor to share evidence with a defense attorney prior to a trial, if you are charged with a crime, your defense lawyer can usually determine – before a trial begins – whether or not there is enough evidence to convict you.
WHAT DO YOU GIVE UP WHEN YOU ACCEPT A PLEA BARGAIN?
When a conviction is likely in a South Florida criminal case, an experienced West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney may – after examining the details of the offer – recommend that you take a plea bargain. Plea bargain agreements usually depend upon a defendant’s willingness to waive his or her right to appeal the sentence or conviction, although in some cases that involve plea bargains, some appeals may sometimes be filed on very narrow, specific legal grounds.
A criminal defendant needs to understand fully that if he or she takes the case to trial, and if the jury returns a guilty verdict, a judge will be handing down a sentence after hearing and seeing all of the evidence and testimony, including the often-emotional and moving testimony of one or more victims. Powerful and emotionally-charged evidence and testimony will play a role in a judge’s sentencing decision – evidence and testimony that a judge never sees or hears when a defendant accepts a plea bargain.
When you accept a plea bargain, the prosecutor makes a promise to you regarding your sentence. But if you are convicted of a crime by a jury of your peers, the prosecution is free to argue for the maximum possible sentence, and probably will. After a trial and a conviction, a judge has little reason to honor a request for mercy, but if you accept a plea bargain, mercy is more likely. Why? Because you have cooperated, and you’ve saved the court from conducting a lengthy and costly trial.
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED IF YOU ARE OFFERED A PLEA BARGAIN?
Before a defendant is faced with any decision about a plea bargain, choosing the right lawyer can make all the difference. West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney Frederick Hutchinson says, “You have to know how to try a case to a jury to be able to properly and sufficiently plea-bargain a case. What I mean by this is that if you don’t know how to use the leverage of a trial to get the best place possible deal, you are leaving your client in a less than optimal position. You should hire an attorney with jury trial experience each and every time so that all of the issues with your case are revealed or examined such that you can negotiate the best way possible.”
The choice to waive your right to a trial by jury and to accept a plea bargain is a serious choice that requires thoughtful deliberation and the advice and insights of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The final choice, of course, is yours alone. If you take the offer, the judge in your case will question you to make absolutely certain that you understand all of the consequences and ramifications of waiving your right to a trial and accepting the state’s plea bargain offer.
A criminal defendant must weigh the likelihood of a conviction against the benefits of accepting the state’s offer. Because every criminal case – and every plea bargain – is different, you must have an experienced criminal defense attorney’s advice. Thus, if you are accused of any crime in South Florida, it is imperative to consult an experienced Palm Beach County criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible.