Should I accept a “plea agreement” if I’m charged with a criminal offense?

plea agreement, Pensacola, attorney, crimeA plea agreement is a negotiated contract between a defendant’s attorney and the prosecutor that spells out the sentence that is acceptable to both parties. That sentence is then recommended to the court; it is then up to the court to accept or deny the terms of the plea agreement.

Provided the court accepts the terms agreed to, there will be no need for a trial. If the court does not accept the conditions, the defendant is generally allowed to withdraw the plea and choose to either plea without a plea agreement “straight up” to the court or go to trial.

Plea agreements have the advantage of certainty for the defendant. Almost always, the sentence agreed upon in the plea agreement is something less severe that the maximum allowable punishment under the law – otherwise there would be no reason to enter into a plea agreement.

Here is a great example of how a plea agreement can work. I once had a client who was charged with an aggravated sexual assault that carried a potential 30-year prison sentence. Additionally, he would have been designated a sexual predator for the rest of his life.

However, through intensive research and investigation that included talking to witnesses, going to the crime scene, talking to friends of the alleged victim, speaking with the victim, taking depositions, conducting social media searches, and so on, we were able to uncover the true facts of the case that did not support the serious charges brought against my young client.

Through the use of this evidence we persuaded the prosecutor that the prosecution was highly unlikely to prevail had we proceeded to trial. The prosecutor agreed to substantially reduce the charges to a non-sexually related offense and offer a plea agreement that called for a withholding adjudication (no conviction), no incarceration, no sex offender registration status of any kind and a short term of probation.

I told my client that I felt like there was a small chance of him being convicted, but in being honest with him, also told him that any time someone presents their case to a jury there is always an element of risk of being convicted. In this case I explained I thought his risk of being convicted was very slim. If he was found guilty he would likely have faced a long term of prison and he have been designated a as sexual predator – more serious than a sexual offender – where he’d have to be electronically monitored the rest of his life.

The decision to accept the terms of plea agreement is always the client’s, not the lawyer’s; I learned many years ago not to impose my will on my client.  I will, however, tell them what I would do if I were in their shoes but the decision is always theirs.

In this case, to avoid any risk, my client chose the negotiated plea agreement. He was on probation for a relatively short period of time, his record was sealed and now, under Florida’s sealing law (explained in a previous blog), he can lawfully deny he was even arrested for this offense under almost all circumstances.

Defendants should know that prosecutors do not offer plea agreements in all cases. Also, just because a plea agreement has been offered doesn’t mean a defendant should accept it. I have advised some clients against accepting plea agreements that I didn’t think was in their best interest.

If you are facing a criminal charge in Pensacola, Milton, Navarre, Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton, Destin or Sandestin – or anywhere in Northwest Florida – please give me, Jim Jenkins, a call if you think I might be able to help you.