When you see criminal defense attorneys on fictional television shows, you usually see them defending their clients in a trial before a jury. In reality, only a fraction of legal cases end up going to trial. This is true in criminal law as well as in civil cases, such as divorce cases. In the criminal court system, which in South Carolina is also known as the General Sessions Court, the case only goes to trial if the defendant pleads innocent. If the defendant pleads guilty to the charges, he or she can sometimes enter a plea agreement. These types of plea agreements are better known as plea bargains.
Why Would Someone Plead Guilty to Criminal Charges?
The Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution guarantee a defendant’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a jury trial. The defendant can choose to have a trial (by pleading innocent), or he or she can plead guilty and accept a punishment for the crime. If the client chooses to plead innocent and go to trial, it is the responsibility of the prosecution to prove that the client is guilty. If there is reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, then the court will acquit the defendant; in other words, it will find him or her innocent. Because of the Fifth Amendment prohibition on double jeopardy, once you have been acquitted of a certain criminal charge, the court cannot try you again for the name charge, nor can it punish you for it.
If there is strong evidence that you committed the crime with which you were charged, strong enough that there cannot be reasonable doubt about your guilt, it may be in your best interest to plead guilty to the charges and enter a plea agreement. Many times, the punishment is less severe for defendants who plead guilty and take plea bargains than for those who go to trial and are found guilty by the jury.
What Are the Types of Plea Bargains?
All plea bargains have two elements in common: the defendant enters a guilty plea and there is often an agreement to recommend a lesser sentence from the prosecutor. There are two main types of plea bargains:
1) A bargain where where the charge itself is reduced or changed to a lesser offense (perhaps to avoid a minimum mandatory sentence).
2) A bargain that includes a recommendation of a lesser incarceration sentence or even a probationary sentence where the sentencing range for the charge allows for the possibility of a much greater period of incarceration.
Why Do So Many Defendants Choose to Enter Plea Bargains?
The majority of criminal cases in the United States result in plea bargains, not in jury trials. In some cases, especially for relatively minor crimes, a plea bargain is the easiest and fastest way for defendants to put the criminal charges behind them. Although jury trials are stressful and time consuming, simply avoiding trial is usually not the main motivation for entering a plea bargain. For crimes where jail time is one of several possible sentences, plea bargains often enable defendants to avoid the possibility of going to jail. Spending time in jail can permanently change a person’s life. Fines and probation are far less disruptive to the defendant’s life and to the lives of his or her family members. If the defendant is almost certain to be found guilty by a jury, because the evidence so clearly points to his or her guilt, sometimes a plea bargain is the only way to stay out of jail.
Why Do Defendants Choose Not to Enter Plea Bargains?
The right to a fair trial is not to be taken lightly; it is your chance to assert your innocence. Remember that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution; if guilt is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt then the jury must acquit. If you think that reasonable doubt can be proven in your case, then you have every reason to plead innocent and to have your case go to trial.
By being found guilty of a crime, whether through a guilty plea or through conviction by jury trial, you have a lot to lose. If you are found guilty of a felony, you will lose your right to vote and to own firearms. Some professions that require professional licenses will automatically take away your license if you have a felony conviction. Even outside of professions that automatically disqualify convicted felons, job discrimination against people with felony convictions on their records is widespread. It is very difficult to have your rights reinstated after a felony conviction.
Critics of plea bargaining say that plea bargains are a form of coercion. In other words, courts pressure defendants into taking plea bargains by threatening them with harsh punishments if they exercise their right to a jury trial. In the United States Supreme Court case Brady v. United States, the court ruled that plea bargains are not valid if they are precipitated by threats, bribes, or misleading and unfulfillable promises. Likewise, the defendant must be made aware of the consequences of accepting or rejecting the plea bargain. Another Supreme Court case, Santobello v. New York, outlined the remedies available to defendants when prosecutors fail to uphold their end of the plea deal.
Contact The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin About Your Criminal Charges
The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin has an excellent track record of acquittals in jury trials and also in getting charges and sentences reduced in plea bargains. If criminal charges have been brought against you, contact The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin in Greenville, South Carolina to find out your options about how to respond to the charges. The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin is committed to protecting your rights.