“The plea bargain was a prosecutorial tool used only episodically before the 19th century” (Dirk Olin, 2002) Plea bargaining has assumed a significant role in the criminal jurisprudence of the United States. A majority of criminal cases in the United States are settled through plea bargaining rather than a conducted jury trial. This paper details some of the basic details relating to plea bargaining in the American criminal judicial system.
A plea bargain usually implies a deal offered by a prosecutor as an incentive for the defendant to plead guilty. Plea bargaining thus can be construed as pre-trial negotiations between the accused and the prosecution during the process of which the accused agrees to plead guilty in exchange for certain concessions in the sentence or charges as offered by the prosecution. There is no specific or perfect definition of ‘plea bargain’ has so far been evolved. According to Black’s Law Dictionary plea bargaining is
“the process whereby the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for the graver charge”
However, in practice plea bargaining is often considered as the mutual acknowledgement of the strengths and weaknesses of the both the defense and prosecution sides in the midst of the tedious process of the trial of the cases and the potential outcome of the trials rather than a mutually satisfied arrangement. Plea bargaining may be attempted at any time; usually it occurs on a pre-trial stage; but in some cases may be undertaken during the conduct of the trial before the verdict is rendered. There is a possibility that plea bargain may be negotiated after a trial has resulted in a ‘hung jury’. Under such circumstance the parties may negotiate a plea bargain instead of going through the process of another trial.
In some common law jurisdictions like England and Wales, Victoria, Australia plea bargaining is undertaken to such an extent that the prosecutors and defense can mutually agree that the defendant will plead guilty to certain of the charges and the prosecution drops the rest of the charges. (Legal Pundits) However no bargaining can take place in respect of the penalties that can be levied and the courts proceed to decide the appropriate penalty in such cases.
Types of Plea Bargains
If in the judicial system every case is allowed to go to trial the courts would find it difficult to try and decide on all the cases. Plea bargaining allows the prosecutor an opportunity to obtain guilty pleas in cases which otherwise would go to the stage of trial by the courts concerned. There are two areas in which plea bargain negotiations can be undertaken. They are:
· Charge Bargaining – in the case of ‘charge bargaining’ the defendant is allowed to ‘plead guilty for a lesser charge’ by the prosecutor. Alternatively the defendant may plead guilty of only some of the charges that have been filed against him. This type of plea bargaining is the most common type. Usually the prosecutor in consideration for a plea of guilty to the committing of a lesser charge will dismiss the higher charge. For example in return accepting guilty plea for ‘manslaughter’ the charges of a first degree murder may be dismissed with the approval of the court. Similarly a defendant who has been charged with the crime of ‘burglary’ may be allowed to plead guilty of ‘attempted burglary’ where the sentence may be less.
· Sentence Bargaining – this involves the agreement for pleading guilty for the charges stated in consideration of a lighter sentence. Under this process the prosecution is saved of the time and efforts to go through the process of trial and proving the case. It also provides the defendant to opt for a lighter sentence which would otherwise have been stronger if a trial is conducted and verdict given. Typically all the sentence bargains are to obtain the approval of the trial judges. This type of plea bargaining is being limited by many of the jurisdictions. Sentence bargaining usually happens in some of the high profile cases where the case is being followed effectively by the media and the prosecutor does not want any reduction of charges in the case.
In addition to the above there can be another area of plea bargaining known as ‘Fact Bargaining’ – which is the least used process of negotiation with the defendant for admitting certain of the facts of the case. The defendant is given the concession that the prosecution will not bring certain other facts in to evidence if some of the other facts are confirmed by the defendant. This process saves the efforts of the prosecutor the need to prove certain facts in the course of trial.
Process of Plea Bargaining
There are three essential components which form the basis for making the plea bargains valid. They are; (i) a waiver of rights to the knowledge of all involved, (ii) the waiver should be a voluntary one arrived at using a process of negotiation and (iii) the presence of a factual basis which can support the charges to which the defendant has chosen to plead guilty.
Plea bargaining takes place through telephonic conversations or is being attempted at the office of the prosecutor in the court room. Normally the judges do not take part in the process of plea bargaining. But in rare circumstances a judge becomes a party to the plea bargain process. Once the process of bargaining is completed it is placed on record by judge in the open court. At the time of placing the plea bargain on record it is necessary that the defendant is present in the court.
It must be noted that the prosecutor is not given the authority to compel a court to accept the plea bargain agreement entered in to by the parties. The prosecutor can only recommend the acceptance of any plea bargain and it is for the court to decide on accepting the plea bargain arrived at. The court will go through the process of satisfying itself through available proofs that the abovementioned three essential elements of plea bargain are present. Only on satisfying about the presence of these elements the court will accept the plea bargain arrangement as recommended by the prosecution.
Plea bargaining cannot be considered as a simple process that can be attempted in any case. “In effectively negotiating a criminal plea arrangement, the attorney must have the technical knowledge of every “element” of a crime or charge, an understanding of the actual or potential evidence that exists or could be developed, a technical knowledge of “lesser included offenses” versus separate counts or crimes, and a reasonable understanding of sentencing guidelines”
Merits and Demerits of Plea Bargaining
Despite the often pointed out criticisms there are certain distinct merits the process of plea bargaining has. It is often the case that more than 90 percent of the criminal cases are decided on the basis of negotiated pleas. This leaves only a meager percentage of the criminal cases going through the process of judicial trial. It provides the judges considerable saving in time in conducting the trials as the judges already hold overcrowded dockets. Further the judges with a view to avoid overcrowding of the prisons are always in favor of negotiated plea bargains. They are receptive to the ‘processing out’ of the criminals who are not likely to get much longer jail terms at the end of the trial.
Similarly for the prosecutors since there caseload becomes lighter they can efficiently discharge their functions. The other important aspect of plea bargain is that the process assures a sure ‘conviction’ even the charges accepted are lesser than the originally stated ones. In some of the cases the prosecutors are made to spend considerable time and efforts in defending cases which finally the cases are lost as happened in the case of murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
Plea bargaining enable the prosecutors to use the process to obtain damaging testimony against another defendant in the case. This ensures that the prosecutor is sure of at least one conviction even if for a lesser charge and the chances of booking the second defendant also against the testimony of the first defendant obtained through plea bargain.
For the defendants plea bargaining provides the opportunity to bargain for a lighter sentence on reduced charges. If the defendant is represented by a private counsel appointed by him the defendant would be able to save considerable costs on conducting the trial. This also provides the opportunity for getting a record of lesser criminal offenses against him.
There are certain drawbacks of the plea bargaining process; when the police are involved in the process it may amount to coercion. When the court is involved in the process it may be considered as impartiality on the part of the court. Involving the victim in the process may involve corruption and the rejection of the guilty plea by the accused may result in more hardship to him. (Soura Subha Ghosh)
US Supreme Court Cases
According to Article III Section 2 (3) of the Constitution of the United States “The trial of all crimes, except in Cases of impeachment, shall be by Jury” However it has not been held that it is unconstitutional to go through a process of plea bargaining to avoid the judicial trials. On the contrary there are a number of court decisions at the highest levels which have taken up the issue of ‘plea bargaining’ for serious discussion and ruling. The constitutional validity of plea bargaining was addressed by the US Supreme Court only when the process has become an integral part of the criminal judiciary. (eNotes.com)
In the case of United States v Jackson (1968) the Court had raised a question on the validity of plea bargaining to the extent that whether the process has burdened the right of the defendant to go through a process of jury trial. In this case the issue was the consideration of a statute that imposed a death penalty only after a jury trial. In this case in order to avoid the death penalty the defendant continued to waive the trials and was eager to negotiate for plea bargaining for a reduction in sentence. In this case the judge noted that the statue had needlessly encouraged guilty pleas.
In the case of Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970) the Court had noted that the plea bargaining process had benefitted both the parties to the case and had thus defended the system.
The Court made it known that the remark in the Jackson case was to stress the need for the guilty pleas to be intelligent and voluntary.
In Santobello v New York, 404 U.S. 260 (1971) the Court observed that the plea bargaining is
“an essential component of the administration of justice ” and thus had justified the constitutional acceptability of the plea bargaining process. The Court added that ‘[as long as it is] properly administered, [plea bargaining] is to be encouraged.”
North Carolina v Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970) can be cited as a landmark case relating to the sphere of plea bargaining. In this case Alford pleaded guilty to a second degree murder prior to trail in the wake of the fact that otherwise he would be sentenced to death penalty on a jury trial in the presence of strong evidences. He was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Later on he appealed that his plea bargain was involuntary and was motivated by the fear of death penalty.
The appeal court allowed the appeal and reversed his conviction. His argument was on the basis of that the plea bargain violated the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution which states that no person shall be compelled in a criminal case to witness against himself. However the Supreme Court held that a guilty plea representing a voluntary and intelligent choice considering the alternatives available to the defendant cannot be construed that the defendant was compelled (in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the constitution) to follow the guilty plea to avoid the possibility of death penalty. The Supreme Court ordered for the reversal of the appeal court decision and reinstated the sentence of Alford.
The term ‘Alford Plea’ thus has come into usage to signify those cases where the defendant tenders a guilty plea and later on denies that he has not committed any crime. There is an express prohibition of ‘Alford Plea’ in certain states and some of the States allow a limited use of the plea.
Breaking the Plea Bargain Deal
A plea bargain is regarded as a contract between the prosecutor and the defendant and as such both the parties are obligated to perform their parts of the contract without fail. The prosecutor has the authority to revoke the plea bargain if the defendant does not carry out his part of the contract. On the other hand if the prosecutor breaks a deal with the defendant then the defendant has the right to claim for setting aside the plea. Alternatively the defendant may require the court to intervene and instruct the prosecutor to carryout the plea bargain. “This may happen if the prosecutor has agreed not to authorize additional criminal charges against the defendant in return for the guilty plea, yet subsequently files the charges” (Aaron Larson, 2000)