Plea bargaining or case settlement is usually referred to negotiation between the prosecution and defense in order to resolve a criminal case without going to trial. Typically, during plea bargaining the defense agrees to plead guilty or no contest to one or more of the charged offenses in exchange for the prosecution’s promise to either drop some of the charges or enhancements, reduce charges to less serious offenses, or file no additional charges. If such an agreement is reached between the parties, the defendant enters a plea, thus resolving the factual issues and the need for trial.
The basic principle underlying plea bargaining is the fact that both the prosecution and defense must abide by the terms of the agreement, and the imposed punishment may not significantly exceed that which the parties agreed upon. As a result, plea bargains are generally governed by the law of contracts, which means that a plea bargain approved by the court is enforceable not under criminal law but under contract principles. Like the parties to a private contract, the state and the defendant are bound by the agreement as between themselves. However, in California the sentencing court is not bound by the bargain. Instead, it is empowered to disapprove it and deny it effect, at least so long as the parties can be restored to their original positions. This gives the accused an opportunity at the time of his or her sentencing to withdraw the original plea in the light of further consideration of the matter pending before the court, and resume proceedings where they left off.
In San Diego, over 90 percent of criminal cases are disposed before trial. The primary reason for plea bargaining is to save money by eliminating court congestion. Pleading guilty or no contest at an early stage of a criminal case eliminates subsequent court hearings and saves the Court’s time. The prosecution may be also interested in case settlement because of concerns related to potential problems of proof, or protecting particular vulnerable victims, for example, small children, from having to testify at trial against his or her accuser. In many cases, an experienced criminal law attorney is able to plea bargain for a more lenient sentence or a less serious charge for his or her client.
An attorney that does not go to trial, however, cannot reliably handicap a plea bargain on behalf of a client.
The San Diego Law Office of Domenic J. Lombardo is dedicated to defending criminal charges in State, Federal, and County courts throughout San Diego. For a free consultation, contact us at (619) 232-5122, or: [email protected].
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