If you were recently arrested for a crime, you will soon become familiar with the term “plea bargain.” A plea bargain refers to an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest (nolo contendere), and in exchange the prosecutor agrees to:
- Drops one or more of the charges
- Reduce a charge to a lesser offense
- Recommend a sentence to the judge that is favorable to the defense
California’s criminal courts are crowded, and prosecutors and judges have a great deal of cases to deal with every month. As a result, they feel pressured to move cases through the courts as fast as possible.
Criminal trials do not move swiftly; they can take sometimes take weeks or months, while a reasonable plea bargain can be negotiated in a matter of minutes. It’s often a win-win situation for the prosecution and the defense.
In contrast, criminal trials are unpredictable and sometimes there’s no telling what a jury may decide. With a plea bargain, the prosecution and defense are able to have some level of control over the result – hopefully, one that both sides can feel good about.
These are just a few reasons why plea bargaining is common. It is estimated that over 90% of convictions come from a negotiated plea, while less than 10% of criminal cases go to trial.
California’s Proposition 8
In 1982, Proposition 8 was passed, banning plea bargaining when the “information” (which is issued after the preliminary hearing) or indictment charges a serious felony (both are charging documents), a DUI offense, a felony involving a gun, or certain sex crimes (Ca. Penal Code Sec. 1192.7). However, the law provided three exceptions when a plea bargain could be done:
1) There is insufficient evidence to prove the state’s case
2) The state cannot obtain testimony from a material witness, or
3) A reduction or dismissal wouldn’t result in a significant change in the defendant’s sentence.
Still, cases continued to be negotiated and pled in California because the law only applies to the charges in the information or indictment. Meaning, the law doesn’t prohibit plea bargaining before that, such as before the preliminary hearing, after an arraignment, or during the grand jury investigation.
Whether a defendant enters a guilty or no contest plea, the judge-approved plea bargain leads to a criminal conviction and the defendant’s guilt is established just as it would be if they went to trial.
However, depending on the crime and the defendant’s criminal history, he or she may be able to seal or expunge their criminal record.