Advantages vs Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining
Many people accused of crimes face the important question of whether to take a guilty plea.
Whether or not a person decides to take a plea can depend on many factors, and the decision can be very easy or very difficult depending on the specifics of the case. For instance, the decision can be relatively easy when the prosecution has woefully insufficient evidence to establish your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In that scenario, you should be able to obtain a dismissal or acquittal, so you have little reason to take a plea.
Likewise, the decision can be easy if the prosecution has a slam dunk case against you (i.e., the incident is on video and you made a confession). In that situation, you should seriously consider avoiding trial and instead work out a plea bargain—unless there are procedural or constitutional issues that an NYC criminal defense lawyer can assess. Even if the prosecution has a strong case against you, your lawyer can often negotiate with the prosecution to work out a great plea offer.
In other cases, the question of whether to take a guilty plea can be very difficult to answer. Typically, the decision can be harder when you have a tough case and it’s unclear whether a jury is likely to find you guilty at trial. In these situations, it’s essential to have an attorney whom you trust to counsel you about your case’s strengths and weaknesses and advise whether you should take the risk and expense of going to trial.
Regardless of whether the choice to take a plea is easy or difficult, plea bargaining has definite pros and cons that should be considered by all people facing criminal charges.
The Advantages of Taking a Plea
A guilty plea has some very real advantages over taking a case to trial.
One of the most overlooked and important benefits of taking a plea is that it often allows you to preserve your time. Defendants who decide to go to trial must wait many months—if not years—before their case goes to trial. Although criminal lawyers try to get cases dismissed when possible, in many cases, the court nor the prosecution will agree to a dismissal. In those situations, any defendant must seriously consider the value of their time in relation to whatever the plea offer is that is on the table.
For instance, let’s say that a defendant is charged with misdemeanor assault for a fight that occurred in a bar. The defense has some legitimate arguments to make at trial, but it’s not a clear winning or losing case and it could go either way with the jury. The prosecution believes that they can prove that the defendant is guilty of the crime of assault, but because the defendant has no criminal record and the criminal defense attorney pointed out some problems with the prosecution’s case, the prosecution is willing to offer a disorderly conduct violation, which is not a crime (it’s like a parking ticket) and will eventually be sealed from the defendant’s record. If a plea to disorderly conduct is offered within the first few months of the defendant’s case, the defendant should seriously consider whether it’s worth his or her time (and potential lost income from missing work) to—potentially over the course of a year or more—waste a day each month to come to court.
For some defendants, pride and a desire to fight all the way to the end is the overriding factor. For other defendants, practical considerations and a desire to get out of the crosshairs of the criminal justice system is the main concern. There is no right or wrong approach, as each defendant has his or her own values and interests that guide their decision-making process. The role of a criminal defense lawyer—beyond trying to get the best possible outcome—is to explain the options to the client and give practical wisdom so that the defendant can make a confident, knowing decision for his or her case.
Related to time, another benefit of taking a plea bargain is that you will reduce your total legal costs. Trials and the many pre-trial court appearances require a lot of time from your attorney, which results in costs that you will pay. Using the bar fight example above, some defendants would prefer to admit guilt to the violation of being disorderly to save thousands in legal costs, while others would rather spend thousands of dollars to keep fighting and pushing forward toward a trial.
With a plea bargain, you know with certainty the outcome of your case. That certainty can be very valuable to many defendants. Especially with serious charges—where the possibility of prison is real and can create tremendous anxiety—a plea bargain can offer a lifeline for some defendants.
For instance, with some serious felony charges, the prosecution may make a plea offer that would result in a sentence of probation instead of prison. However, if the defendant rejects the offer but then loses at trial, the judge could sentence the defendant to years in prison. In this sort of situation, the stakes of going to trial are very high since the defendant has an option to avoid prison. Obviously, if a defendant has a strong defense, then the risk of going to trial may very well be worth it, but when the case is not black and white, the risk of going to trial—even if there are defense arguments to be made—may not be worth it to the defendant.
Whether a person wants the certainty of a plea bargain is completely dependent on the risk tolerance of the defendant and the specific plea offer on the table. For a person who works to support a family, it may be worth it to reduce risk and take a plea that provides the certainty of staying out of prison. On the other hand, for a person who is 20 years old with no family and gets a plea offer of four years in prison (but would get a maximum of seven years if the case is lost after trial), the certainty of four years in prison isn’t valuable, so it may be worth the risk to go to trial.
Better Outcome Than a Guilty Verdict
If you do not have a strong defense and will likely lose at trial, your outcome will be better if you take a plea than if you lose at trial. Obviously, if you have a winning case, your outcome should be better after trial because once you win, the case will be dismissed and sealed. However, if you are likely to lose at trial, you can almost always get a better outcome by taking responsibility for the crime and accepting a plea offer. Before a plea is entered, an experienced criminal defense will ensure that all procedural and constitutional provisions were followed in your case so that you don’t take a plea when you don’t need to.
Even if you are guilty of the charged offense and don’t have solid arguments to support your innocence, your criminal defense attorney can pivot negotiations with the prosecution to focus on you as a person and the circumstances in your life that justify a great plea offer.
The Disadvantages of Taking a Plea
Taking a guilty plea means admitting that you committed an offense. Even if the offense is a petty, non-criminal infraction like disorderly conduct, a plea requires you to admit that you are guilty of that offense. Unfortunately in New York, courts do not accept “Alford” or “Nolo Contendre” pleas, which are allowed in some other states, and let defendants enter guilty pleas for practical purposes while still maintaining their innocence.
Although some pleas do not involve crimes, many pleas involve admitting guilt to a crime, which results in the defendant having a permanent criminal record. Although New York is taking steps to have more lenient expungement procedures, as of now, after pleading guilty to a crime, a defendant will have a criminal record for years before expungement of his or her record is even a possibility. A criminal record can have many collateral consequences, such as the loss of employment, licensing and deportation for non-citizens.
In addition to getting a criminal record, a guilty plea comes with court fines and a sentence. Although a sentence can be time already served and nothing more, typically a sentence includes either community service, programming, probation or prison.
Although the downsides of taking a plea are certain, such downsides also occur when you take a losing case to trial. So, in a sense, these are the downsides of having a bad case—whether it’s resolved by a plea or jury verdict of guilty. Strategically, though, there is one true downside of taking a plea in a case: by taking a plea, you let the prosecution off the hook because they no longer must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s hard for the prosecution to get all their witnesses to show up to court when a trial starts, and little inconsistencies with their evidence can create reasonable doubt—which is all you need for a not-guilty verdict.
So, even cases that are bad for the defense on paper can ultimately result in a not-guilty verdict if the prosecution doesn’t get all their ducks in a row. Further, procedural issues can occur as a case drags on—such as violations of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial—that result in a dismissal of the case. That said, a defendant who took a plea in the first few months of a case may have been able to obtain a dismissal for procedural reasons if he had continued fighting the case.
Seek Guidance from a Skilled NYC Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Despite these negative aspects of taking a plea, a plea isn’t necessarily the wrong decision for any given case. As noted above, the outcome of losing at trial is typically worse than taking a guilty plea. The analysis of whether to take a plea or fight a case can be very complex. An experienced NYC criminal defense attorney can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your case to determine the best strategy and help you make informed decisions. If you have been charged with a crime, contact Cody today to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case.