If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, then you may be asking yourself whether you should accept a plea offer from the prosecutor or go to trial. This is a question people ask themselves all the time, no matter what the charge may be – all the way from a speed ticket to a serious felony such as robbery, sexual assault, or an allegation of significant violence.
The answer to this very important question, like most legal questions in the criminal realm, is: IT DEPENDS.
Choosing to go to trial or to accept a plea offer depends on many factors and considerations. At OSBORNE LAW, Attorney Mark Osborne asks his clients to ponder the following questions:
- Can the prosecutor (i.e. the State) actually prove the charge against you?
- Does the prosecutor have reliable witnesses who will actually come to court and testify under oath that they saw (or heard) you do something illegal?
- b. Does the prosecutor have physical evidence such as DNA, lab testing results, discovered drugs, a video recording, an exhibit such as your clothing, your property, a letter, a bank statement, a recorded confession, that helps to either put you at the crime scene or tends to prove your guilt? If yes, then is there a way to get that evidence suppressed (or thrown out)?
- Do you consider yourself to be 100% INNOCENT, 100% GUILTY, or somewhere in between?
- Sometimes people are innocent and are falsely accused of a committing crimes.
- Sometimes people are guilty of having committed a small or minor crime, but the State goes crazy and excessively charges them with an unnecessarily serious offense. For example:
- Maybe a person stole a t-shirt from a store and bumped into a security guard on his way out the front door. It would not be unheard of for the prosecutor to charge the defendant with a simple misdemeanor Theft and a felony Robbery. Yes, you read that correctly!The prosecutor has the discretion to charge the defendant with a minor misdemeanor Theft for which the punishment may be a fine. Or, the prosecutor could decide to charge the defendant with Robbery and claim that bumping into the security guard while stealing a t-shirt was a “use of violence or force” and thus constituted a violent felony.The decision whether to “take a plea” or go to trial would likely depend on which way the prosecutor charged the case. Most people could probably stomach paying a fine and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for the t-shirt theft. And, most people would rather go to trial than to plead guilty to a felony Robbery for stealing a t-shirt.
- Sometimes people commit a crime for which they are technically 100% responsible (or culpable) but, under the circumstances, they acted righteously and had a good reason for doing what they did. For example:
- Jake is charged with shooting Joe with a pistol. Joe dies. Jake may be charged with murder, given that shooting people is usually illegal. But, if the evidence shows that Joe was running at Jake with a knife in his hands screaming, “I am going to carve you like an Easter ham!” when Jake shot Joe, then Jake has a claim of self-defense, and should not be deemed guilty of murder.
- Jill walks into the local grocery store. She steals a steak and some milk. She is arrested and charged with Theft. Jill is probably guilty of Theft. Jill says that she was not stealing for the fun of it. Jill tells the police that she has no money, is homeless, and has 6-year-old son whom she cannot afford to feed. One might expect that the law (i.e. the prosecutor and the judge) should show Jill some mercy. But, if Jill walked into the store and stole a few Angus rib-eye steaks, caviar, and a nice bottle of French wine because she wanted to impress her friends for a dinner, then Jill probably should (and would) receive a different plea offer than if she were stealing to keep her child alive.
- Sometimes people commit crimes, but they are mentally ill and may not have known or understood what they were doing. A plea offer, and ultimate case resolution, should reflect that reality.
- Lastly, sometimes people commit crimes for no good reason, but they are still entitled to receive a trial.
- Is the plea offer fair? Are the terms of the plea offer close to what you were hoping for?
- If you go to trial and lose, what possible punishment might you receive afterward? Might your punishment be worse than or better than the prosecutor’s offer?
- No lawyer can accurately predict 100% of the time what kind of punishment a client will receive after losing a trial. But, most lawyers like Attorney Mark Osborne (who has been practicing criminal law exclusively since 2003) can usually read the writing on the wall and offer a pretty good estimate as to what his client’s punishment will be after trial.
- Possible or likely punishments after a trial depend on the personalities of your judge; whether your prosecutor is fair-minded or vindictive; if the evidence presented during trial made you look bad (was the alleged victim sympathetic and believable?).
- Do you have prior convictions that the judge will hear about during a sentencing hearing?
- Were the facts of the case discussed during trial particularly disturbing and unpleasant enough to make you look bad?
- Some prosecutors make offers that are way too harsh. After a trial, a judge may give a defendant a sentence (i.e. a punishment) that is far more lenient than what the prosecutor offered.
- Other times judges may give a defendant a tougher punishment, depending on the facts of the case and the person’s prior criminal history.
- What can you live with at the end of the day?
- This may be the most important consideration of all. Some people just want to avoid jail, plead guilty, put the case behind them, and annul (expunge or wipe away) the conviction in a few years.
- Other people are willing to risk a more substantial punishment in order to clear their name or to try for a not guilty verdict.
- How will a conviction affect your life? Can you keep (or get a job) with a conviction? Will you be able to get into (or stay in) school with a conviction? Will you keep or lose a security clearance, public housing, government benefits, with a conviction? Will a conviction hurt you with a divorce or child custody matter? Will you be able to get or keep a professional license with a conviction?
- Will it haunt you knowing that you took a plea when maybe, just maybe, you could have won your trial?
- Will it haunt you knowing you went to trial and lost and could have simply received a lighter sentence?
At the end of the day, every case and every person’s priorities for taking (or not taking) a plea offer are different. Everyone has different consequences and life experiences that guide them in their decision making. A good deal for Defendant A may not be good for Defendant B.
When the stakes are high, the opinions of friends and family are not rarely sufficient in guiding you to make the best decision on legal matters that can affect you for the rest of your life.
At OSBORNE LAW, we will help you get the best result possible. The criminal legal system is not east, it is not fun, and it can be scary. Remember, you are not alone. Attorney Mark Osborne will stand with you every step of the way.