While every defendant has a constitutional right to a jury of his or her peers, criminal charges rarely go to trial in Sonoma County or in California County for that matter. Most criminal cases are resolved by a plea bargain or plea arrangement.
A plea bargain is when the defendant pleads guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges. The process may begin when the prosecutor agrees to dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a plea to the remaining charges.
Or the defense counsel may insist upon the prosecutor or the District Attorney to reduce the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. In other cases, defense counsel will persuade the prosecutor to reduce a Penal Code 422, a criminal threat, to a simple disturbing the peace or a Penal Code 415.
Sometimes, the plea will include an offer of a low-end sentence or probation in exchange for the plea. These are called conditional pleas. An open or unconditional plea is one where the defendant pleads guilty with no promises made to him or her for the plea.
But in many cases, defense counsel knows how the judge will sentence a defendant based upon the judge’s custom and practice and the defendant’s lack of criminal history and the like. Or counsel can simply ask for an indicated sentence.
The judge has very little to do with the conditional plea process and, in fact, in California, the judge is not allowed to engage in any plea bargaining. However, at the time the plea is entered by the defendant in court, the judge can reject the plea agreement, but the judge cannot change the terms of the agreement.
Open pleas can be made to the court and the judge can, in that instance, indicate the sentence he or she will levy against the defendant. If that sentence is not imposed, the defendant can withdraw the plea.
Following the acceptance by the judge of the defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest, whether after a plea bargain with the prosecutor or an open plea, the court will enter judgment, that is, the judge will enter the conviction pursuant to the plea.
Most plea bargains are conditional pleas. These pleas are treated as a contract between the defendant and the prosecution and governed by general contract principles. Because it is a form of contract, neither party can easily back out unless the plea agreement violated certain principles under contract law or is violative of the State or Federal Constitutions.
Examples of this may include that the agreement was vague or ambiguous, was not fulfilled as promised, was fraudulently made or was entered (by the defendant) under coercion. The Penal Code at section 1018 permits a defendant to withdraw his/ her plea within a certain time frame and for good cause– good cause generally relates to contract principles of law.
Many criminal justice reform advocates believe that the high rate of plea bargains suggests a fundamental unfairness in the system. It appears common that prosecutors charge a defendant with every possible crime for the offense and make each charge as severe as possible with the idea that the built-in plea bargain process will result in “justice.”
But if a poor defendant does not have the resources to hire an aggressive, experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney this “plea down” process disfavors them, and they end up serving much longer jail sentences.
On the other hand, advocates of the plea bargain process maintain that it conserves resources and taxpayer money. If every defendant went to trial, counties would quickly run out of money. Court trials are expensive.
Already, the taxpayers foot the bill for court operations, judges’ and bailiff salaries, the prosecutors’ salaries, and the public defenders’ salaries—just part of the vast public resources that are expended for the judiciary and the administration of justice.
Plea bargains often result in a favorable outcome for the defendant. The alternative is to take each case to the jury and depending on the crime and the sympathies of the jury, this can be a risky choice. Sonoma County jurors are known for their inclination towards law and order.
Sonoma County jurors are neither liberal or conservative—it depends on the particular jury pool and the luck of the draw, but one thing is certain, older and more conservative people usually sit on Sonoma County juries because they have more time than younger folks who have young children or jobs that they need to attend.
A good defense attorney who can spot weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and who is a skilled negotiator often makes a significant difference in plea bargaining with the prosecutor.
For example, the criminal charges may indicate a prison sentence, but a defense attorney who can drive a “hard bargain” can often get probation for his or her client instead.
Fiumara and Milligan Law has been driving hard bargains with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office since 1992 and continues to fight for each of our clients. We will work hard to get the best outcome in your case—don’t settle for anything less.
Call us today at 707-571-8600 for a FREE CONFIDENTIAL CONSULTATION.
For more info relating to jail alternatives in Sonoma County, CLICK HERE.
To view some of our recent case results where we were able to help our clients get a significantly reduced sentence or even dismissal, CLICK HERE.