By: Mark Diaz
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Why You Should Never Accept a Plea Deal Without a Lawyer
Texas ranks second among all US states in terms of population, so you probably expect arrest rates to be relatively high. However, the number of people who are charged with criminal offenses every year is still staggering. The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) reports that officials charged more than 530,000 individuals in 2020, but average arrests totaled almost 689,000 prior to the COVID pandemic. Clearly, police are dedicated to apprehending offenders as part of their goal to protect public safety.
However, arrests are just part of the picture. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of all criminal charges in the US are disposed of by a guilty plea. There are no exact figures on how many of those who pleaded guilty did so to get a plea deal, but researchers have determined that approximately 90% to 95% of federal and state criminal cases are resolved via agreement.
This data is welcome news if you were recently arrested, but it is important to not get sidetracked by the attraction of a plea deal. There are still critical implications for your rights, and plea bargaining can impact your future. Retaining legal representation is crucial, and it is not just the knowledge and experience that Galveston County criminal defense attorneys bring to the table. There are also specific reasons why you should never accept a plea deal without a lawyer, including the following:
The Prosecutor Represents the Government, Not You
It is important to understand the roles involved in a criminal case since many people do not realize that the plaintiff in these matters is the government. The government needs a lawyer to represent its interests in punishing crime, and this position is the prosecution. The defendant in a Texas criminal case is you, the person accused of the crime.
It would be a huge mistake to have opposing counsel represent you in any case, so you should certainly not expect the prosecutor to support your interests. They might seem helpful in discussing a plea bargain, making recommendations to the judge, and preparing the proper court orders; however, the terms of the agreement will always favor the government.
Plus, the prosecution will probably not point out any provisions that have an adverse effect on your rights. The government’s attorney will probably not be inclined to dedicate time explaining the details to you, a non-client.
You Do Not Know the Procedure for Getting a Plea Deal
Discussion about a plea bargain may take place informally, but there are strict rules about working through the details in court. The exact requirements may vary according to the charged offense and where your case stands in the criminal process, but the steps typically include:
- Initiate Discussions About a Plea Deal: Not all cases are amenable to plea bargaining, so you would need to talk to the prosecutor about whether it is an option. In some cases, however, the prosecution might even approach you about a deal.
- Negotiations: There may be some back-and-forth as you try to work out the details of the plea bargain. You will need to evaluate what you would be willing to accept on your end.
- Going Before the Judge: An important point to note is that a plea deal is not set in stone just because you reached an agreement with the prosecution. The judge must still approve it, which will usually be the case. As part of the proceedings, the prosecutor recommends that the court accept the arrangement. On rare occasions, the court may go in the other direction.
Your Punishment Might Not be What You Expect
One of the goals of a plea agreement is reducing the penalties you would face if convicted of the crime for which you were arrested. If you do not know the high and low range of penalties you face if convicted, you cannot assess whether a plea deal is even a good idea. For instance:
- If convicted of a Class A Misdemeanor, a judge could sentence you to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. A prosecutor might approach you offering a six-month sentence and half the fine. It might be a mistake to take the plea bargain if you are a first-time offender, as courts often order probation for non-violent offenses.
- A conviction for a Third Degree Felony is a minimum of two years in prison, though a judge could order up to 10 years of incarceration. If the prosecution agrees to seek the minimum, there is less risk that the judge sentence you to the maximum.
The Collateral Consequences Can Still be Harsh
When you enter into a plea agreement, you will need to plead guilty in order for it to take effect as described above. Even if you benefit from a lenient sentence, the non-criminal implications can still affect your future. These are the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, which is the end result of your case when you plead guilty. The matter appears on your permanent criminal record, so it can be uncovered in a background check. The case is also a public record for anyone who wants to look it up.
You might reduce the harshest punishment by a plea deal, but the collateral consequences remain. It is important to understand how a criminal conviction could affect:
- Your employment options
- Any professional or businesses licenses you hold
- Your voting rights
- Your driver’s license
- Your Second Amendment rights
Note that a plea bargain can address collateral consequences if you can negotiate a felony down to a misdemeanor. Some issues only affect convicted felons.
You Are Not Aware of Potential Defenses
Besides reduced punishment, plea bargain also brings the advantage of certainty – despite the rare situation where the judge refuses the prosecutor’s recommendations. However, if you have defenses to the charges, you do yourself a disservice by working out a deal with the prosecution. With a solid defense, you could get a dismissal of the charges before trial. If your case does go to trial before a judge or jury, you might get a complete acquittal.
A plea deal may reduce the punishment or take a felony down to a misdemeanor as mentioned. The prosecutor might even offer to drop some charges entirely if you plead to another. These seem like attractive options, but they do not dispose of your case. It is critical that you pursue defenses if available, such as:
- Lack of evidence
- Lack of proof regarding intent or knowledge, where state of mind is an element of the offense
- Unlawful search and seizure
- Other misconduct by police
There May be Other Strategies for Fighting Criminal Charges
A plea bargain is usually one of the best tactics for resolving a criminal case, but there may be additional options for certain charges.
- For certain individuals arrested for drug crimes, counties have established a drug court that focuses on treatment instead of punishment.
- Deferred adjudication is available in some cases, and this is a type of probation. The advantage is that a conviction will not appear on your record if you complete the terms set by the court. The disposition WILL, but the conviction will not.
- Pretrial diversion is similar to deferred adjudication, except that you must apply in advance and be accepted into the program.
You May Not Understand the Full Implication of a Plea Deal
Though you might still need to serve jail time and pay fines when working out your case by agreement, there could be conditions attached when probation is part of the bargain. After you are released, you may need to comply with multiple requirements set by the court. They may include:
- Random drug and alcohol testing
- Meeting with a probation officer
- Avoiding additional arrests or criminal activity
- Completing a substance abuse assessment
- Participating in counseling and educational sessions
- Paying all fines, fees, and restitution
The terms of your probation become part of a court order that applies directly to you. Violating these conditions is breaking the law, and there can be serious consequences. You might be required to go to court for a revocation hearing, and the judge has the discretion to impose penalties if the evidence shows a violation of probation. You could be released with tighter terms of probation, or your probation could be revoked and you go to jail.
A Galveston Criminal Defense Attorney Will Protect Your Rights
These are just a few reasons why you should never accept a plea deal without a lawyer, but keep in mind that representation is critical for other aspects of a Texas criminal case. A prosecutor may not even consider plea bargaining unless the evidence is weak, and your attorney is instrumental in pointing out vulnerabilities in the government’s case.
If you were recently arrested, please contact criminal defense attorney Mark Diaz to schedule a free consultation. You can call 409-515-6170 to speak to a Galveston County defense lawyer. Once we review your circumstances, we can advise you on the pros and cons of a plea deal.