Plea Bargaining in a Colorado Criminal Case
Settling a criminal case is usually called a plea bargain. It means that the prosecution and the defense come to an agreement to resolve the case. The case can be settled at several points during the process, from before it is charged all the way to trial's doorstep. Usually, however, the best bargain can be obtained earlier rather than later in the process. But "usually" doesn't mean "always". And in many cases it is a question that should be analyzed immediately so that good opportunities to settlement aren't given up because of pride or inattention.
Part of a lawyer's job is to make sure the client is making good life decisions. You can't do that as an attorney until you understand the client, the client's goals, the case, the likelihood of conviction and the consequences to the client if convicted. A DUI conviction, for instance, may have minimal consequences for the life of one person but might be the end of a career or job for another person. A petty theft conviction is career ending for a police officer but may mean no time, no fine, and minimal life consequences for another person in a different job or life situation. This analysis is vital and should be done as early in the case as possible.
Sometimes the opposite is true. Many times if the client foregoes the prosecutor's offer and takes the case to a preliminary hearing, the evidence reveals just how bad the case is for the client causing the defense to lose any bargaining leverage that may have existed beforehand. It is the job of the defense lawyer to intimately and quickly understand this process and make the best recommendation to the client.
The factors that enter into a prosecutor's decision to make a "plea bargain offer" include the strength or weakness of the evidence, how awful or minimal the facts appear, the prior record of the accused, and the potential of bad publicity or public criticism. A competent criminal lawyer can understand the power of all these factors and give the client a good assessment of what they (the client) can expect to get as a settlement.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines and stiffer Colorado State Court sentencing enhancements make both plea bargaining and going to jury trial more difficult and riskier propositions. Many times the client is put into a situation where if they don't take the plea, they face many years in prison. This current state of affairs makes it even more important to analyze and make the decision to attempt settlement early in the case.
Plea Bargain vs. Jury Trail
The decision whether to take a plea deal or go to jury trial rests entirely with the client. While there are many decisions that are the sole responsibility of the defense attorney, the decision on whether to go to trial or take a plea deal can only be made by the client. A critically important function of a defense lawyer is to help clients make the correct decision, by accurately evaluating the strength of the prosecution’s case, along with the applicable sentencing law. In cases where there is mandatory sentencing, a client must try to avoid a situation where they reject a plea offer, only to find that the judge has no choice but to sentence them to jail or prison. For this reason, the lawyer must develop an accurate understanding of the strength or weakness of the defense case at an early stage in the proceedings.