If you’re facing criminal charges, you may have the option of negotiating with the Commonwealth’s attorney for a lower sentence.
Typically, in exchange for a plea of “guilty” or “no contest,” you’ll receive a much lower sentence than if the case had gone to court.
This process is called a plea deal, or plea bargain, and it’s an incredibly common occurrence in the Virginia justice system.
Taking a plea deal may significantly reduce the charges against you.
However, it’s important to go into a plea deal with full knowledge of what you’re agreeing to.
Remember, a plea deal is a strategy to consider, not an end unto itself.
The best way to figure out if taking a plea deal is right for you is by consulting with an experienced lawyer.
Never accept a plea deal without talking to your attorney first.
To give you a basic idea of how the process will unfold, this article will cover the general information you need to know about plea deals in Virginia.
How Do I Make a Plea Deal?
In Virginia, you can make a plea deal at any point after you’ve been charged with a crime or infraction.
Depending on the circumstances, this can occur either in-person or remotely.
If you consent to your lawyer doing so, they may also negotiate a plea deal on your behalf.
However, the plea deal doesn’t become legally binding until you freely agree to it, and the judge accepts it.
According to Virginia law, the state is only required to write down plea bargains for felony cases.
However, it’s always a good idea to request a written version of your plea agreement regardless of the severity of the crime, provided that the jurisdiction you are in allows for written plea deals.
Doing so will allow you to understand exactly what you are agreeing to before you enter your plea.
Normally, the plea negotiation is a back and forth process between you, your lawyer, and the Commonwealth’s attorney.
In most cases, your lawyer will negotiate with the Commonwealth’s attorney outside of the courtroom for a fair sentence.
After they finish negotiating, your attorney will present and explain the offer to you before agreeing to enter into a final plea agreement.
Finally, you should note that plea negotiations are usually kept completely private.
Only after both parties present the agreement to the court, and the judge accepts the agreement, will the final agreement become public in open court.
What are the advantages of taking a plea deal?
From a defendant’s perspective, there are several advantages to taking a plea bargain. The biggest ones include:
- Reduced charges, fewer charges, or a lesser sentence. These will depend on the type of offer you accept, as detailed in the next section.
- When you accept a plea offer, you know your sentence immediately. If accepted by the judge, you don’t have to worry about an unexpected sentence that’s harsher than you imagined.
- Finally, accepting a plea offer almost always takes less time than going to trial. This means you’ll leave the court system months earlier than if you choose to fight the charges. You’ll also save a good amount of money in court and attorney fees.
What Goes into a Plea Deal?
The deal you receive will depend heavily on the location of the court, the discretion of the Commonwealth’s attorney, and the circumstances of your case.
However, plea deals typically take one of four forms, as detailed below.
Amending the Charge
In a charge bargain, you or your lawyer are negotiating with the Commonwealth’s attorney to amend the current charge to a lesser offense.
If accepted, you will plead guilty or no contest to this lesser offense in exchange for the corresponding lower penalties.
One very common example of charge bargaining in Virginia relates to reckless driving.
In Virginia, reckless driving is a misdemeanor that can result in huge fines, license suspension, and even jail time.
In some cases, the officer or the Commonwealth’s attorney handling the case may agree to amend the charge to a lesser offense such as speeding or improper driving.
They will then inform the judge of the amendment, and the court will proceed with the case as amended.
In some jurisdictions, the officer or the Commonwealth’s attorney will have to present the amendment as a proposal to the judge, and if accepted, the court will proceed with the case as amended.
Once the amendment has been made, you will plead guilty or no contest to the amended charge, instead of going through a reckless driving case.
Since improper driving and speeding are only traffic infractions, not misdemeanors, this is almost always the preferable outcome.
Amending Number of Counts
In a count bargain, you or your lawyer are negotiating with the Commonwealth’s attorney to amend the number of offenses against you.
This may require that plead guilty to one or more offenses.
In return, the Commonwealth will drop the remaining charges.
Count bargains are also very common in Virginia traffic and drug cases.
In some cases, you will have to plead guilty to the most severe offense, or agree to longer sentences.
For example, a person charged with DUI, reckless driving, and a speeding ticket could negotiate to plead guilty to DUI and have the rest of their charges dropped or significantly reduced.
In a sentence bargain, you plead guilty to a given offense after you and the Commonwealth’s attorney agree on what your sentence will be.
The Commonwealth’s attorney then requests the court to accept the plea deal, and you then receive that specific sentence.
Sentence bargains are common in cases with highly variable stakes.
For example, a drug possession case might end in a sentence bargain if there are a wide range of punishments for a judge or jury could select from.
Rather than face the uncertainty of what the judge or jury could impose, you could take a pre-determined sentence and avoid a harsher unexpected result.
When Should I Avoid Taking a Plea Deal?
While plea bargains have many advantages, that doesn’t mean you should always automatically agree to one.
Always talk over your options with a lawyer, and think twice about any plea bargain where:
- The commonwealth’s attorney has a weak case.
- You’re still near the beginning of the trial process.
- Pleading guilty (or “no contest”) would cause you undue hardships.
If your lawyer thinks that the Commonwealth has a particularly weak case, you may want to fight the charges in court.
Similarly, you should wait to see what the Commonwealth offers before requesting a plea bargain.
Often, they may offer a much lower sentence than you would expect due to certain factors such as a high caseload or a lack of evidence.
Finally, you should consider that entering a guilty plea will cause complications in your life.
These extra-judicial effects are called collateral consequences, and are the result of any guilty verdict.
Common examples include the loss of certain civil rights, difficulty finding a job, or the loss of certain government benefits.
Knowing whether or not to accept a plea deal is extremely difficult, even for someone trained in criminal law.
In this regard, there’s no substitute for both experience and a familiarity with the specific judges and prosecutors in your case.
By hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can negotiate the best possible deal for your case.
Doing so can save you considerable time, money, and heartache, and allow you to avoid the worst that the Virginia justice system has to offer.