Definition: Plea agreements are negotiated settlements between the prosecution and defense that can result in reductions of the charge and/or sentence.
Executive Summary: Fewer than 10% of criminal cases go to trial. Following arraignment a plea agreement that reduces the charge to a lesser included offense where the sanctions are less serious is often offered.
More Detail: Judges have discretion as to whether or not to accept a plea agreement in most instances. At the very least, judges faced with a plea recommendation should be advised to review the police report if allowed to do so by local law. Absent a showing of good cause placed on the record by the prosecutor as to why the court should accept this plea, the prosecutor should be ordered to bring the matter to trial should the court’s calendar allow for it .
Plea agreements are most common in heavy volume courts especially where the prosecutor is not employed full-time by the city, town or state for which they work. Alaska is one state that has a “no plea bargain” policy. While that may not be feasible for all states, judges should at least be advised of all options available to enforce the state DUI laws.
Although agreements sometimes result in reduction of charges or sentences, agreements also permit the certainty of a conviction even though the state’s evidence may be relatively weak or otherwise problematic. Also, plea agreements allow a defendant the opportunity to accept responsibility and receive punishment without the necessity of an expensive and uncertain trial. The laws and policies relating to plea agreements vary among states and are governed by statute or by the policy of the prosecuting attorney.
Some argue that plea agreements undermine the justice system by eroding the general and specific deterrent effects of criminal sanction; others argue that without plea agreements the system would grind to a halt. Regardless, the use of plea agreements in impaired driving cases is being controlled as jurisdictions begin to impose limits on the process in an effort to ensure appropriate sanctioning. Prosecutors in a national survey estimated that two-thirds of DUI defendants who plead guilty do so with a negotiated plea agreement; a majority of prosecutors also reported that they were not required to state reasons for the plea agreement on the court record. This lack of information regarding previous charges and plea agreements impedes the identification of repeat offenders. Pleas to lesser charges, especially those that are non-alcohol related, prevent prosecutors from elevating charges from misdemeanors to felonies in subsequent cases because prior convictions may not be counted.
Due to the exceptional administrative benefits of plea agreements, eliminating or even reducing this legal practice does not offer a favorable solution to the associated problems. However, other measures can be taken to improve the efficacy of plea negotiation. When an accused impaired driver accepts a plea negotiation, prosecutors may be required to present the facts for the charged crime in the court records. This will provide detailed information about the crime in the event of a repeat offense by the defendant. Another complication is when prosecutors reduce sentences from an alcohol-involved driving crime to one that does not involve alcohol. Some local plea policies ensure that an alcohol-related crime remains an alcohol-related crime. Finally, in enhanced offenses such as high-BAC cases, limiting plea opportunities can be beneficial. These limits can help so that a defendant still favors the plea over trial, while assuring proper consideration for the committed offense.
Suggested Audience: Prosecutors, Judges
- DUI Caseflow Management Washington Office of the Administrator for the Courts, Published 1999