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Miami-Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney explains hidden traps in plea bargains

From the beginning of your case, you and your Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney will probably be considering opportunities to resolve your case without a trial.

Most criminal cases involve plea bargaining. In a typical plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreement to (a) not charge the defendant with a greater crime, or (b) dismiss other charges, or (c) recommend a reduced sentence.

It can be very difficult to evaluate a plea offer without help from an experienced Miami or Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer. A prosecutor’s offer may seem like a good deal, especially if it will keep you out of jail. But it may come with hidden traps or may not be the best deal you could get with a dedicated criminal lawyer fighting for you. Here is some information to help you understand what is involved in a plea deal.

Types of plea agreements

There are two types of criminal plea agreements: charge bargains and sentence bargains. A charge bargain is the defendant’s agreement to plead to a certain charge or charges in exchange for the prosecutor’s promise to drop charges or not to bring others. A sentence bargain is an agreement for a particular sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

Charge bargains

In evaluating a charge bargain, you and your Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer will need to consider several factors.

First, does the bargain reduce the sentence that you will face? A charge bargain is a good deal if the dropped charges carry greater penalties than the ones you agree to plead to or if the dropped charges carry mandatory minimum or consecutive sentences. If the sentences on the multiple charges against you merge or are concurrent, a charge bargain may provide little benefit.

Second, what collateral consequences accompany the charges? When each of several charges against you carries the same sentence, your Fort Lauderdale criminal attorney will want to bargain for the one that carries fewer collateral consequences. Generally, you should try to avoid an agreement to plead to sex offenses, violent crimes, or drug offenses because these crimes often trigger sex offender registration, enhanced sentences for repeat offenders, disqualifications from government benefits programs, restrictions on possession of a firearm, and adverse immigration consequences for non-citizens.

The number counts of a conviction is a third factor to consider. A plea to multiple counts may count more in sentencing calculations on future charges. Furthermore, probation or supervised release on concurrent multiple sentences can come back to bite you if you violate your probation. If you are found guilty of a violation, the judge can sentence your terms of imprisonment on each count to run consecutively.

Sentence bargains

With a sentence bargain you reach an agreement either with the judge or the prosecutor on the appropriate sentence.

When the judge promises the sentence. The value of a sentence bargain depends on several factors, including whether the judge participates in or accepts the bargain. Only a few jurisdictions permit judges to participate and promise a particular sentence in exchange for a plea. The federal courts and most jurisdictions forbid the trial judge from participating in plea bargaining.

If the judge promises a particular sentence, you can rely on the promise if it is put on the record.

When the prosecutor recommends the sentence. When the judge does not promise a sentence, the prosecutor can agree to recommend a particular sentence or sentencing range. However, the prosecutor’s recommendation is not binding on the judge. And, if the court does not follow the prosecutor’s recommendation, you cannot withdraw your guilty plea at sentencing. Therefore, this type of agreement is valuable only if your judge typically follows prosecutors’ recommendations. Having an experienced Miami criminal lawyer who is familiar with the sentencing practices of the judge in your case is crucial to evaluating this type of deal.

Other options. In jurisdictions with sentencing guidelines, you and the prosecutor might stipulate (agree) to facts that would place your offense within the desired sentencing range.

You can also agree with the prosecutor to a sentence with the understanding that the judge will permit you to withdraw your guilty plea if the judge declines to follow the prosecutor’s recommendation at the time of sentencing.

Another possibility is that a prosecutor may agree not to make any recommendation or statement at sentencing, or not to oppose your attorney’s recommendation. Evaluating this type of agreement is complicated. You need to know what the prosecutor will say if the judge asks for his or her position after your attorney requests a particular sentence. Most prosecutors will not agree to join in the request, but a firm statement that the prosecution has no comment on your attorney’s request signals the prosecutor’s agreement to the judge.

Probation departments and presentencing reports. In some jurisdictions, probation officers will recommend a lengthier sentence than the prosecutor. Judges give the probation officer’s recommendations considerable weight. If your case is in such a jurisdiction, your attorney may ask that the probation department prepare a presentence investigation report before you enter a plea so you can weigh the decision to plead fully informed of the probation department’s decision.

Otherwise, when the prosecutor has agreed to a sentence recommendation, it’s usually best not to have a presentencing report. The judge usually knows nothing about the case aside from what your attorney and the prosecutor tell him. The pre-sentence investigation report sometimes turns up details that about you and the crime that will persuade the judge to disregard the prosecutor’s recommendation or even to renege on a promised sentence.

The dangers of accepting a plea early in the case

Soon after an arrest, the prosecutor may offer a defendant the chance to plead guilty to a serious charge in exchange for getting out of jail early. These types of bargains are not necessarily in a defendant’s best interest and can cause future problems.

As a defendant, you may face a tough choice if pleading guilty will get you out of jail on probation, but pleading not guilty will keep you in jail. For many defendants, probation just creates more serious problems because it involves obligations that they cannot fulfill. Once a defendant violates probation, the defendant is likely to get a stiff jail sentence.

If you wait a while, the prosecutor could reduce the charges against you significantly. An early plea offer may indicate that the prosecution’s case against you is weak. A seasoned Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer can often anticipate these weaknesses and advise you to hold out for a better deal later.

An early plea to a serious crime gives you a criminal history could haunt you on a future arrest. It also may carry serious collateral consequences, such as those mentioned above. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can help you avoid the hidden traps of an early plea bargain offer.

For help with your criminal case

If you are facing criminal charges in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area and would like to speak with an experienced Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer, contact Mark Dachs. To arrange for a consultation, please complete the Case Evaluation form on this page, and we will respond promptly. Or call or email us.

Mark Dachs
Miami-Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer

Areas Served: The Dachs Law Firm, P.A. represents clients in the following Florida counties and communities. Counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach. Communities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Coral Gables, Pompano Beach, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Miami Beach, Kendall, Deerfield Beach, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Homestead.

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