Many criminal cases involve plea bargaining. In a typical plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty a charge (hopefully to a lesser charge) in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreement to not charge the defendant with a greater crime, or to recommend a reduced sentence, or to dismiss other charges. But in the early stages of a criminal case, a plea bargain may involve pleading guilty to a serious charge in exchange for getting out of jail early. These types of bargains are not necessarily in the defendant’s long-term best interest.
Plea bargaining at initial appearance: There are practical and legal obstacles to disposing of a case through a guilty plea at the initial appearance. In Idaho, the magistrate judge has limited jurisdiction and cannot enter a plea of guilty to a felony charge or serious misdemeanor. Furthermore, at this early stage, the parties have limited knowledge about the seriousness of the case and the possible defenses.
Plea bargaining after the initial appearance: Plea bargaining often starts early on in the case. Sometimes this is because there is pressure on prosecutors to dispose of cases quickly, with the minimum use of court and prosecutorial resources. Sometimes this is because of the defendant’s inability to make bail.
A plea bargain may be in your best interest. But, make sure you are informed—and never make a hasty decision. Some plea bargains may have some nasty collateral consequences that you may not know about. For example:
- A plea to certain misdemeanor charges may force you to do additional community service (that is separate from jail) or have a separate driver’s license suspension from the Department of Transportation.
- A plea to a state misdemeanor that has a maximum possible sentence of more than two years imprisonment forever disqualifies you from possessing a firearm.
- A plea to a drug offense, either delivery or simple possession, prevents you from obtaining any federal student aid for at least one year, including federally guaranteed student loans.
Having a criminal defense attorney on your side can help you avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in an early plea bargain offer. For example, at Minert & VanOrmer we will:
- Be very cautious about suggesting that you enter a guilty plea. If your attorney perceives serious weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence, your attorney may advise you to hold out for a better deal later. Sometimes, the prosecutor will see that the bluff has been called and make a second, more acceptable offer.
- Learn as much about the case as possible from you and from the prosecutor and police.
- Advise you that, as unbearable as jail may seem, you will have to live with the consequences of a guilty plea for the rest of your life. A conviction exposes you to greater punishment upon later prosecutions and may stymie your job prospects forever.