• Shirish Khaire

Is Plea Bargaining Worth to You?

If you have watched 'Billions' on 'Showtime' you might have come across the term 'plea bargaining' which is used throughout all the seasons where 'Chuck Rhoades would give his plea bargaining terms usually bring the multi-millionaires to average income earning groups for committing a felony or various other frauds.


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"If I rob a gas station, I'm going to get 15 years. If I steal $400 million on Wall Street, I start plea-bargaining."- Powers Boothe

History


The concept of plea bargaining has become a keystone of criminal trials in the USA. The constitutional validity of this principle was established by the famous ‘Brady vs United States’ case which was decided by the supreme court of the USA in 1970.


In this case, Robert Brady was charged under the Federal Kidnapping Act for kidnapping and not releasing the hostage. When he came to know that his co-accused was going to confess the truth, he also decided to plead guilty, under the threat that, if his guilt was established, he could be sentenced, to a death penalty. He confessed before the district court, that he was voluntarily pleading guilty and knew the consequences of such pleading and thus was sentenced to fifty years of imprisonment instead of the death penalty. But he reversed his confession in appeal and said that he did so under the threat of the death penalty being imposed. However, the Appellate Court upheld the earlier judgment and recognized plea bargaining as a constitutionally valid principle of criminal justice, provided that it is made voluntarily.


This brings us to the question of what plea bargaining is?

What is Plea Bargaining?


It is basically a negotiated agreement between the accused/defendant and prosecutor, whereby, the accused agrees to plead guilty for some of the charges in exchange for a lesser punishment. It has now been accepted the world over that even an innocent person can plead guilty to avoid the cumbersome procedure of law. Plea bargaining can be done at any stage of the trial i.e. even before charges are framed or at any time before the announcement of judgment.

Types of Plea Bargaining


There are three main types of plea bargaining.

  1. Charge bargaining, in which, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to reduced charges. E.g. Instead of agreeing to attempt to murder, he may agree to assault

  2. Sentence bargaining, where, the defendant is assured of lesser or lighter or alternative sentences. This is the most commonly used method. It is generally used in less serious crimes as a reduced sentence or fine is better than fighting the case.

  3. Count bargaining, where the accused agrees to fewer charges out of the list of many charges.

No contest/Nolo Contendere is considered a subtype of plea bargaining in some countries. In this case, the defendant declares that he does not want to contest the case and pleads guilty to avoid a court trial and uncertainty of trial results. However, it must be noted, that this ‘No contest’ plea taken by the defendant in a criminal trial cannot be used against him, in subsequent civil proceedings between the same parties.

Role of Jury/Judge


The role of a jury/judge is very important in the process. Sometimes, he takes actual part in the negotiation process between the parties or sometimes, he himself offers, the defendant, lesser punishment in exchange of pleading guilty. In both cases, it is the judge, who has to finally acknowledge the agreement and award punishment accordingly. Plea bargaining, being a kind of agreement between the parties, in case of breach by one of the parties, the other has the option to repudiate the agreement.

Merits and Demerits


This principle not only helps the accused to secure lesser punishments but also the prosecutor to avoid the lengthy and time-consuming court process and save his efforts. Moreover, it also helps the courts to deal with cases as expeditiously as possible as there is no need to go into the presentation of evidence and examination and cross-examination of witnesses. Thus, a majority of cases, in the United States are resolved by plea bargaining rather than a jury trial.


As every coin has two sides, this principle has its demerits. The most important being that many heinous crimes can also be compounded or compromised by this method and thus, the very purpose of justice administration is frustrated. Thus, different countries have developed different guidelines and made provisions in this regard by prohibiting such type of plea bargaining in certain serious offenses. Moreover, it also encourages some innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to avoid the uncertainty of the result of court trials.

Conclusion


However, despite these demerits, plea bargaining has become a widely used and very common principle of the criminal justice system all over the world and has now spread in the international arena as well.

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