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The pros and cons of plea bargains

If you are a North Dakota resident charged with committing a crime, you may be wondering if you should authorize your attorney to enter into a plea bargain with the prosecutor or if you should go to trial instead and risk conviction by a jury. Often this is one of the most important decisions you must make, particularly if you face felony charges.

Before agreeing to any plea bargain, it is important for you to understand exactly what the agreement is, who will do what, and what the consequences likely will be. Therefore, always thoroughly discuss with your defense attorney any plea bargain that the prosecutor proposes.

Three types of plea bargains

While each plea bargain is unique to the persons making it, as well as to the circumstances of the case, plea bargains generally fall into one of the following three categories

  1. Charge plea bargain: You agree to plead guilty to one or more less serious charges; the prosecutor agrees to drop one or more of the more serious charges.
  2. Sentence plea bargain: You agree to plead guilty to the crime(s) as charged; the prosecutor agrees to recommend a lighter than normal sentence.
  3. Fact plea bargain: Your attorney agrees to stipulate to the truth of one or more facts that the prosecutor will bring up at trial; the prosecutor agrees not to bring up one or more additional facts.

Be aware that just because you and the prosecutor enter into a sentence plea bargain, the judge does not have to go along with the prosecutor’s sentence recommendation. (S)he can impose a longer sentence if (s)he feels it is warranted. On the other hand, (s)he can impose a shorter sentence, although this seldom happens.

Plea bargain advantages

Agreeing to a plea bargain saves you the time and considerable expense of defending yourself in a full-blown jury trial that could, depending on the seriousness of the crime(s) you allegedly committed, take days or even weeks to conclude. In addition, you know more or less exactly what to expect. Depending on the strength of the prosecution’s case against you, raising sufficient reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors to acquit you can be a dicey proposition at best.

Plea bargain disadvantages

Conversely, a plea bargain’s main disadvantage is precisely that it deprives you of the opportunity to have your case decided by a jury of your peers. This right to a jury trial is one of your fundamental rights guaranteed to you by the U.S. Constitution. You should never give up this right lightly.

In addition, in both a charge plea bargain and a sentence plea bargain, you must admit in open court that you committed the specified crime(s). The judge will ask you if you are voluntarily pleading guilty, and that is your last chance to get out of the plea bargain. Once you plead guilty, you are pretty well stuck with your decision. Changing your mind later during your appeal generally carries little if any weight and seldom leads to a new trial. It virtually never leads to an overturned conviction.

It is critical that you have a very serious discussion with your attorney about plea bargains. Only (s)he can properly advise you as to whether or not it is a good idea in your specific case and best serves your interests.

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