Understanding Plea Bargains in California



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What Are Plea Bargains? 

A plea bargain is a criminal case deal between a defendant and the prosecutor. The defendant pleads guilty or no contest in exchange for certain concessions or benefits concerning the charges against them or the sentence they may receive if convicted.

The process actively involves both the prosecution and the defendant. The judge’s role is often limited to approving or disallowing the agreement at the end of the negotiation.

There are many benefits of plea bargains to all the parties involved. It allows the prosecutor to avoid spending time and resources on a lengthy trial. At the same time, it gives the defendant more lenient treatment regarding the charges against them or the severity of sentences they may receive.

However, plea bargains may not always favor the defendant. So if you’re being offered a plea bargain agreement, it is important to consult a criminal lawyer in Oakland. They can explain the implications of such an agreement and help you negotiate better terms if possible. In the meantime, you can keep reading to learn more about how plea bargains work in California.

How Plea Bargains Work

In a plea bargain, the defendant waives their right to a full criminal trial by pleading guilty subject to the plea agreement’s terms. In exchange for the guilty plea, the defendant may get the following:

  • A reduction in the number of charges they face

  • A reduction in the severity of the offense they’re charged with

  • A reduced sentence or none at all (by offering probation instead of jail time) 

Here’s a basic overview of how the plea bargaining process typically works in California:

  1. Charging: After an arrest, charges are filed by the prosecution. The defendant is usually arraigned and enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A not-guilty plea is often entered initially, giving the defense and prosecution time to negotiate a plea agreement if that’s a route both sides wish to pursue.
  2. Negotiation: If the defendant, often through their attorney, decides to consider a plea deal, negotiations with the prosecution begin. These can occur in formal meetings or informal conversations between the defense attorney and the prosecutor. The defense attorney’s role is to argue for the best possible outcome for the defendant, including reduced charges, dismissal of some charges, or a lenient sentence.
  3. Plea agreement: A plea bargain is made if the two sides reach an agreement. The defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest (nolo contendere) to certain charges. The plea deal must be put in writing and signed by both parties.
  4. Judge’s approval: In California, as in most states, the plea bargain needs to be approved by a judge. During the plea hearing, the judge will confirm that the defendant understands the rights they are waiving by pleading guilty, such as the right to a jury trial, and that the plea is voluntary. The judge will also confirm that there is a factual basis for the plea.
  5. Sentencing: If the judge approves the plea deal, the defendant will be sentenced. In some plea deals, the agreed-upon sentence is part of the deal. In others, the judge will determine the sentence. The sentence could involve jail time, probation, fines, restitution, community service, or a combination of these.

Plea bargaining can be a complicated criminal justice process, and it’s generally recommended that defendants have legal counsel to help navigate it. Criminal cases are unique, and many factors can be at play, including the seriousness of the charges, the strength of the evidence, the prosecutor’s policies, and the defendant’s criminal history.

The Cons of Accepting a Plea Bargain

However, a plea deal may only be appropriate for some. Asking an innocent person to accept a plea bargain is asking them to plead guilty for an offense they did not commit. A plea bargain would likely be unacceptable to such a defendant even if there’s incriminating evidence against them.

Again since accepting a plea bargain means pleading guilty, the defendant may still encounter some drawbacks of a criminal conviction. The offenses admitted via a guilty plea could appear on the defendant’s criminal records and background checks. This could make it difficult for them to find a house or job or move ahead in life generally. In such cases, the defendant may need to go through California’s complicated criminal expungement process to clean up their records.

A guilty plea via a plea bargain may also affect the defendant’s chances if they need to appeal the judgment for any reason.

The decision to agree to a plea bargain is huge and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You’ll need to balance several factors, including the nature of the evidence against you, potential penalties, and the negative effects of the plea bargain for your future. A criminal defense lawyer can help you weigh all the factors and help you reach a decision that benefits you.

Types of Plea Bargains

Several types of plea agreements are generally accepted across the US. They include the following:

Charge agreements: A charge agreement is helpful when the defendant is facing multiple charges. It allows the defendant to choose the specific crime for which they will be sentenced (usually less severe) while the remaining charges are ignored or dropped.

Sentence bargaining: With this type of plea agreement, the prosecutor agrees to recommend a specific sentence made per the defendant’s sentence request.


Plea Bargains in California

Under the California Penal Code, certain offenses cannot be the subject of plea agreements. For instance, the code prohibits the use of plea agreements if the offense charged is any of the following:

  • A serious felony

  • A felony in which the defendant personally used a firearm (allegedly)

  • Driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol, narcotics, any other intoxicant, or a combination of such substances

  • Violent sex crimes.

However, the restriction is not absolute. The law allows for plea bargains for prohibited offenses if:

  • There is insufficient evidence to prove the prosecution’s case

  • The testimony of a material witness can’t be obtained

  • A reduction or dismissal of the charge would not substantially change the sentence

These restrictions and exemptions are important as the extent of compliance could determine whether the plea deal is accepted in court.

Judges in California typically uphold plea deals as valid agreements between a defendant and a prosecutor. However, a judge may refuse to approve a plea agreement if it violates the above statutory limitations.

In cases involving violent sex crimes, the code recommends that prosecuting officers or district attorneys prosecute the charges under statutes that make distinctions between first offenders and habitual offenders instead of plea bargaining. This way, frequent offenders do not receive any concessions or lenient treatment via a negotiated plea agreement.

How Can a Criminal Defense Lawyer Help

When facing criminal charges, it is beneficial to do so with an experienced criminal defense attorney, especially if you’ve been offered a plea deal. Remember that the prosecuting attorney represents the government, not you, so your well-being is not their priority.

So, no matter how attractive a plea deal seems, you might want your lawyer to be part of the negotiations to ensure your interests are completely protected.

Even if you’re assigned a lawyer from your local public defender’s office to act for you, they may be unable to give your case the required attention due to a lack of time and resources. Therefore, consider hiring an attorney wholly dedicated to your case.

Your attorney can assess your case and the evidence against you and help you determine if accepting a plea deal is right for you.

If you need a San Francisco drug crime lawyer or have further questions about plea bargaining in California and your available options under the law, contact us at the Law Office of Rebecca Feigelson. We are here to answer your questions and can represent your interests during the plea bargaining process and throughout the criminal trial. Schedule a free consultation with us to get started.