If you are facing criminal charges in Virginia, there is a good chance that you will be in a position to consider a plea bargain. According to the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state criminal charges are resolved by agreement with the prosecutor. The basic arrangement works as follows:
- The parties come to terms on a plea bargain, in which the prosecutor agrees to lesser charges, a reduced sentence, or both. In exchange for this leniency, the defendant pleads guilty.
- The prosecution recommends that the court accept the plea bargain, including the defendant’s admission of guilt.
- If the judge accepts the plea deal, the case moves to sentencing. While rare, the court may reject a plea bargain, so the case continues along the criminal process.
The benefits of reaching a plea agreement are certainly attractive, as is the fact that you get a sense of certainty about the outcome. However, since the arrangement can affect your life in ways you did not expect, it is crucial to consult with a Virginia criminal defense lawyer about your circumstances. There are four factors to consider before you take a plea deal.
- You cannot address civil rights violations. If there was police misconduct involved with investigating, questioning, and/or arresting you, a guilty plea eliminates the opportunity to raise violations of your constitutional rights. You skip over the pretrial and trial phases via plea bargain, so the court will not even address evidence obtained through an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. If you went to trial and this information was tossed, you might be acquitted – making a plea a bad idea.
- You might have a defense or other options for fighting the charges: Besides illegally obtained evidence, there may be strategies that can lead to dismissal, reduced charges, or acquittal. Examples include:
- Evidence of self-defense
- Information regarding an alibi
- Exposing weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case, which might prevent a jury from finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
- The potential sentence may still be harsh. In some cases, the difference between the agreed-upon and the official charges may be minimal when it comes to what a judge may issue as a sentence. Unless you have a meticulous understanding of minimum and maximum sentencing, and how they apply to felonies and misdemeanors, a plea deal may not be advantageous.
- There are limitations on taking back a guilty plea. Depending upon how far your case proceeded before you made a plea deal, you may not be able to change your mind. Virginia’s statute on withdrawal of a guilty plea, you can only take it back before:
- The judge issues a sentence
- The court suspends sentencing to a later date, usually for a hearing on sentencing
Your only option for withdrawing a guilty plea AFTER these events is if you can convince the court to set aside the order that includes the plea agreement. You will need to prove that doing so is necessary to correct an obviously unjust situation, and you need to file your motion within 21 days after entry of the final order.
Consult with a Virginia Criminal Defense Attorney About Your Options
This information should provide you with some general guidance on plea bargaining in a Virginia criminal case, but it is critical to retain skilled legal representation for assistance with the process. Our criminal defense lawyers at Shannon & Associates, P.C. can explain the charges and assess the evidence, giving you the details you need to make an informed decision. For additional, personalized information on factors to consider before accepting a plea deal, please contact our Chesapeake, VA office to set up a consultation.