A plea bargain, also known as a plea deal, is an agreement made between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant. Typically, the defendant will give up his or her right to a trial and agree to accept responsibility for one or more criminal charges. In exchange, the prosecutor will either dismiss or reduce certain charges and/or agree to a specific sentence.
Any plea bargain that is made has to be approved by the judge overseeing the case. Plea bargains limit risks for both prosecutor and defendant in criminal cases and are usually made with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.
What is a Guilty Plea?
When a plea bargain is made, it usually requires that the defendant plead guilty to at least one criminal charge. To plead guilty, the defendant has to appear in front of the judge and admit they committed a specific crime. The judge will not accept the defendant’s guilty plea if they do not accept full responsibility for a given criminal charge.
The defendant must also tell the judge that he or she is not being forced to plead guilty and that they understand the potential consequences for pleading guilty. No criminal defendant can be forced to plead guilty to any criminal charge because of their Sixth Amendment Constitutional right to a jury trial.
What is a No-Contest Plea?
A no-contest plea is similar to a guilty plea because it results in a criminal conviction. However, the defendant does not admit guilt. In a no-contest plea, the defendant tells the court they do not wish to fight the charges while refraining from admitting their guilt.
Under a no-contest plea, a defendant will be punished just the same as if he or she pled guilty. So why do no-contest pleas exist?
A defendant may use a no-contest plea when:
- The defendant also faces the potential for a civil lawsuit from the alleged conduct; or
- The defendant does not remember committing the crime because of an impairment of some kind (e.g., alcohol, drugs, or a mental health issue)
If a defendant is later sued for the same conduct related to their criminal case, a no-contest plea can’t be used as evidence of guilt. If the same person pled guilty instead of no-contest, then that guilty plea might be used in a lawsuit against the defendant to prove guilt.
How Often Do Plea Bargains Occur?
Plea bargains are by far the most common way that criminal cases are resolved. Over 90% of all criminal cases end are settled by a plea bargain. Plea bargains allow the prosecutor and defendant to limit risks, as jury trials are risky for both sides in a criminal case. When a plea bargain is made, the defendant can breathe a little easier knowing that they have some guarantees regarding the charges and/or punishment.
A common example is that of a drunk driving (OVI/DUI) case. If someone is arrested and charged with drunk driving, making a plea bargain may help that person guarantee that the judge doesn’t send them to jail.
When Can I Seek a Plea Bargain?
You (or your lawyer) can attempt to make a plea bargain at any time in a case before a jury verdict is decided. Most plea bargains are made relatively early in the criminal justice process, usually way before any trial. Other plea bargains take time to come together, and some can even occur during a jury trial. If a trial ends up with a hung jury, both the prosecutor and defendant can agree to a plea bargain before the charges are reissued for a second trial.
Controversy Surrounding Plea Deals in Ohio
In many plea bargains, defendants will agree to admit responsibility to crimes that they actually did not commit. This occurs in criminal sex offense cases where defendants are allowed to plead to crimes like aggravated assault and avoid the sex offender registry. Some judges have called these pleas “fictional” pleas and have pushed for reform to make defendants only admit to things they actually did.
In 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court decided that so-called “fictional” pleas could continue by a 4-2 vote. This decision rejected the recommendation made by state court judges that plea bargains should be only based on the facts and circumstances of a given case.
Make Sure You Speak to An Attorney Before You Agree to a Plea Bargain
It is in your best interests to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney before you agree to any plea bargain. Plea bargains can be complicated to understand. We offer a free consultation so you can have your case reviewed by a seasoned professional.