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Plea Bargaining: Areas of Negotiation

Plea bargaining actually involves three areas of negotiation:

  • Charge Bargaining: This is a common and widely known form of plea. It involves a negotiation of the specific charges (counts) or crimes that the defendant will face at trial. Usually, in return for a plea of "guilty" to a lesser charge, a prosecutor will dismiss the higher or other charge(s) or counts. For example, in return for dismissing charges for first-degree murder, a prosecutor may accept a "guilty" plea for manslaughter (subject to court approval).
  • Sentence Bargaining: Sentence bargaining involves the agreement to a plea of guilty (for the stated charge rather than a reduced charge) in return for a lighter sentence. It saves the prosecution the necessity of going through trial and proving its case. It provides the defendant with an opportunity for a lighter sentence.
  • Fact Bargaining: The least used negotiation involves an admission to certain facts ("stipulating "to the truth and existence of provable facts, thereby eliminating the need for the prosecutor to have to prove them) in return for an agreement not to introduce certain other facts into evidence.

The validity of a plea bargain is dependent upon three essential components:

  • Knowing waiver of rights
  • Voluntary waiver
  • Factual basis to support the charges to which the defendant is pleading guilty

Plea bargaining generally occurs on the telephone or in the prosecutor's office at the courtroom. Judges are not involved except in very rare circumstances. Plea bargains that are accepted by the judge are then placed "on the record" in open court. The defendant must be present.

One important point is a prosecuting attorney has no authority to force a court to accept a plea agreement entered into by the parties. Prosecutors may only "recommend" to the court the acceptance of a plea arrangement. The court will usually take proofs to ensure that the above three components are satisfied and will then generally accept the recommendation of the prosecution.

Moreover, plea bargaining is not as simple as it may first appear. In effectively negotiating a criminal plea arrangement, the attorney must have the technical knowledge of every "element" of a crime or charge, an understanding of the actual or potential evidence that exists or could be developed, a technical knowledge of "lesser included offenses" versus separate counts or crimes, and a reasonable understanding of sentencing guidelines.

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