Negotiating a Plea Bargain in New Jersey
September 24, 2023
In some criminal cases, a plea agreement is worth your consideration as an alternative to resolve the charges.
Sometimes, it makes more sense to accept the state’s plea offer than to face a bench trial or trial by jury. Once you accept the prosecutor’s plea offer, you enter into an agreement or bargain that trades your guilty plea to some or all the charges for a lighter sentence, fewer charges, reduced charges, or waiver of mandatory minimum sentences, for example. A plea offer may occur pre- or post-indictment, and there are positives and negatives to accepting a plea deal.
What can be Negotiated in a Plea Bargain in NJ?
When the county or municipal court prosecutor files charges against you, they typically file all possible charges that may apply to the factual circumstances of the crime. For example, the facts supporting a bank fraud charge also fit wire fraud, theft, identity theft, or money laundering. One type of plea bargain allows the prosecutor to reduce the charges the defendant pleads guilty to for a lighter sentence. Likewise, a prosecutor may offer a reduced charge in exchange for a guilty plea, for instance, a third degree criminal conviction of four years in prison rather than a second degree crime carrying a minimum of five to ten years for a conviction.
Similarly, many severe criminal charges carry mandatory minimum sentences, meaning a convicted defendant must spend a minimum of months or years before becoming eligible for parole. A plea offer of a reduced crime may lower the number of years in prison. Also, a prosecutor may waive the mandatory minimum. Without the minimum, defendants may get an early release from prison on parole.
Typically, you serve one-half to one-third of your sentence for good behavior and work credits. Thus, one type of plea bargain reduces the charges or punishment of the crime. For example, a third degree criminal conviction offers a judge sentencing options of three to five years in prison. A plea bargain may stipulate that the defendant only serves three years, the lower end of the sentencing range.
What Happens if You Refuse to Take a Plea Offer?
On the other hand, a defendant has the right to refuse a plea offer and proceed to trial. There, either a judge or jury decides their fate. A judge or jury may render a guilty or not guilty verdict based on the evidence. The burden of proof for the state is beyond a reasonable doubt. That means the judge or jury must have no doubt that the accused committed the crime or crimes the state charges. A defendant may try their luck at a trial when the state’s evidence is insufficient to meet the high burden of proof for a conviction or when they did not commit the crime or crimes charged.
However, being tried and found guilty has its risks. Sentences after a trial tend to be stricter than those negotiated in a plea bargain. A judge sets a separate hearing after they or the jury comes to a verdict for sentencing. At that time, the judge can decide which sentence is appropriate based on the guidelines in the law, any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the criminal history of the defendant, and the potential for rehabilitation.
Motivations for Accepting a Plea Bargain
Many factors come into the decision to accept a plea or a trial. Although an innocent defendant does not want to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit, sometimes the facts of the case, the defendant’s circumstances, and the time and expense may convince someone to accept a plea. For example, you know you did not commit the crime but have no witnesses or other evidence to cast doubt on the state’s case. In addition, trials take months to come to a courtroom where both the prosecution and defense are ready. Before that, the court may schedule several hearings to ensure the case is moving toward a resolution. That means paying attorney’s fees and taking time off work or from family to pursue a trial that may not come out in your favor.
For the defendant, a known sentence may be better than an unknown outcome after a trial. Prosecutors do not typically bring cases to trial that they cannot win. Thus, an accused must carefully consider their attorney’s counsel. As an accused, you may want to get the criminal matter over with so you can get on with your life and remain with your family. You may favor a sure thing over a risk, one of the most vital reasons to enter a plea, especially when you have a criminal history that requires the prosecutor to seek the maximum sentences.
Depending on your situation and the strength of the state’s case, your attorney may say you should accept a plea, especially when it is favorable. A prosecutor who agrees to PTI or the municipal court equivalent instead of a prison sentence, is a deal many want to take. You complete a program, including drug testing, counseling, and education, and your criminal history remains clear. That could go a long way when you seek a job or pursue a professional license that you may be disqualified from with a criminal record.
What Drives Prosecutors to Negotiate Plea Agreements?
A plea bargain saves the prosecutor time and state or federal resources. Trials are expensive and take up a lot of human resources and money for the state, especially when the defendant has a public defender. Both the prosecutor and public defender are on the state payroll. And a heavy caseload may inspire a prosecutor to resolve a criminal case before trial.
Plea bargains save everyone time and resources, mainly when the settlement occurs before an indictment. A prosecutor may offer a plea at the outset of the case, hoping you accept it, and they can move on to more critical or time-consuming matters. And prosecutors are more likely to offer pleas in specific cases, such as traffic offenses in municipal court, drug possession or distribution, theft, assault, juvenile offenses, and internet and white collar crimes.
How can a Plea Negotiation Evolve in the Criminal Justice Process?
An early plea offer rests on the accusation in the complaint and may not hinge as much on the evidence that may prove stronger or weaker as the case proceeds. A plea bargain at the outset may be beneficial to avoid the criminal process, or it may prove better or worse for the defendant after the indictment when the prosecutor has more evidence to support their case and the encouragement of a grand jury that votes to indict the accused. In other words, the bargain terms may change as the case develops and more facts emerge. The prosecutor’s office has guidelines on plea bargains and does not pull a deal out of a hat.
Considerations that affect the generosity of the plea offer are the defendant’s clean criminal history and the nature of the crime as more self-injurious, like drug possession, than crimes with victims. The prosecution looks at violence and guns to commit the crime as an aggravating factor warranting a steeper sentence or charge, as opposed to lesser crimes of simple theft or receiving stolen property with lower penalties.
Does the Judge Have to Approve a Plea Deal?
Once they offer a plea and the defendant takes it, the judge must approve the deal. Most approve it and then sentence accordingly, but some judges may have reason to reject the bargain. A judge may allow a first-time drug offender to enter Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI), a diversionary program that seeks to rehabilitate offenders rather than incarcerate them. For lower-level crimes, probation and community service may be more suitable, given the degree of participation in and circumstances of a crime. For instance, a delivery driver in a drug trafficking network will get a lower sentence than the ringleader, but whether the driver knew they were participating in an illegal operation may matter.
Contact our Attorneys for Help Negotiating a Plea Deal in Burlington County NJ
While you can represent yourself in criminal court, you are better off having an attorney who can explain how the plea bargain works and advise whether a particular offer is good enough or whether negotiations will yield even better results. Chances are, you will probably get a better deal with an attorney. At Proetta, Oliver, & Fay, our criminal defense attorneys always deal with prosecutors, so we know what to expect and how far we can go to secure an advantageous agreement for you. As a dedicated criminal defense firm, this is what we do on a daily and weekly basis on behalf of clients facing criminal and DWI charges in towns like Pemberton, Mount Laurel, Mount Holly, Delran, Bordentown, Cinnaminson, Riverside, Marlton, and throughout the Burlington County and Southern New Jersey area. Contact our Evesham Township office at (609) 850-8284 to talk to a criminal defense attorney about plea bargaining in your case.