Pleading Out: Making A Plea Bargain
05/ 06 / 16 Filed in: DUI | Legal | Process
When you get arrested for suspicion of DUI there's two main schools of thought when it comes to your court case - I'm going to fight this, or just give me the minimums and let me get this over with. Unless there's a spectacular mistake or injustice made, even in the case of the most focused fighter, they usually become a person who just wants to put it to bed.
The DUI process is long, and it's taxing in a lot of ways - financially, mentally, logistically. But it all comes to an end one way or another.
The vast majority of cases are settled by a plea bargain. You don't go to trial, you save court costs, you save time, and you (hopefully) get a minimal sentence or close to it. You can fight it, but you've given the state the evidence they need to convict you. This is the part where you really feel like you're being eaten up by the gears of the system. The deck is stacked, and you didn't have much of a chance to begin with.
So, it's always with a heavy sigh that somebody says, "Ok, I'll take the plea bargain".
It feels both heavy, in that now, as soon as you sign it and return it you are a convicted criminal. How did your life end up like this? But there's also a lightness in saying, "alright, I messed up, lemme do what I gotta do, and put it behind me".
When you're offered the plea bargain, you should know all of the terms involved - what the fines will be, how much (if any) jail time, how long the DMV program will be, the conditions of an interlock device, suspension, the driver's license suspension, any additional charges involved in this plea (any charge you picked up in your stop, can be rolled into this plea and effectively dismissed as well), everything. Be sure to ask as many questions as you possibly can. Get your money's worth out of your lawyer, get the public's money out of your public defender, or if you're representing yourself, get the prosecutor to lay out every single bit of it. Know your plea forwards, backwards, and upside down before you sign anything. Do not sign anything you do not understand.
Absolutely, under no circumstances sign anything you do not understand or did not agree to.
There shouldn't be anything screwy in there, it's a procedure the prosecutor goes through hundreds of times a week, but, once again, and I cannot emphasize it enough - Do not sign anything you have questions about or have not been informed about.
Alright, I think we've on the same page now.
How do you plead?
The first thing you need to understand about the plea bargain is what the actual plea is - there's two options "Guilty", which is what it sounds like, and "nolo contendere", which is a little bit different, and what you should be pleading.
Nolo contendere means "No Contest", but the legal system likes to stick to using latin wherever possible so the phrase has hung around. Pleading No Contest is the same as pleading guilty for the most part - you still get a charge, you still skip the trial, you still get punished - but pleasing No Contest has a little quirk that actually, for once, goes in your advantage: a plea of No Contest cannot be used against you in a civil case as an admission of guilt. So if you were drunk and hit a parked car, the owner suing you can't use you taking a No Contest plea as proof that you did it and admitted to it. If you plead guilty you can. For most DUIs coming from traffic stops or checkpoints there won't be a civil case associated, but you should take the protection anyway. Any time the legal system offers you protection, just take it. It also allows you to mentally not have the word "guilty" attached to yourself, which is good for your headspace.
The Plea Form
The plea form itself is a long document that asks you to agree to nearly 40 different statements - it looks daunting, but if you understand the offer given to you it isn't bad. Here's a quick walkthrough:
The first two statements are that you understand you that you have a right to an attorney. Easy enough. You pick whether you have one or not.
The next section lays out the charges against you - that you drove under the influence, that you had a BAC of .08, whether you were driving a commercial vehicle (special charges and BAC restrictions on those), and if you were reckless or not. It also has a place that can add on any other related charges to your crime (open container, no license, etc). Be absolutely sure to only initial the boxes that correspond to the actual charges against you. I wasn't driving a commercial vehicle, so I did not initial that box. Under no circumstance should you agree to anything that you weren't charged with - this will come back to haunt you. Again, if you don't understand something, you can ask your attorney, the prosecutor, or the judge, even.
Afterwards comes a section where you waive your rights. It's always disheartening as an American to give up any of your rights, but this gets the process moving. If you're pleading out you've already decided that you do not want a jury trial, or produce evidence, and that you don't want to cross examine people. Also, by pleading you are self-incriminating, and giving up your right to silence. You've already implicitly agreed to these concepts, but seeing them in writing makes it a little bit difficult. Give up your rights? This is America. Eh. At this point it's all a formality.
Then you're presented with the consequences of your actions - there's a chart with the minimum and maximum punishments and you agree that you understand the range of what can happen. What's really important to understand is that this is where you agree to the Watson provision - where if you drink and drive again, and end up in a collision that results in a fatality you may be charged with second degree murder. Let that sink in for a second. Screw up again and you may find yourself fighting a murder charge. If that doesn't motivate you to avoid a second charge, nothing will.
Additionally in this section you agree to pay court costs in addition to the penalty. The on-the-books penalty for a DUI is $390-$1000, but you end up paying much more because the various fees and court costs they tack on to your conviction. There is no way around these. You cannot fight them. Again, you're just caught up in the gears of the machine.
This section goes on to illustrate the differences in the DMV case vs the criminal case, which you should understand at this point as you've been pretty well through it and may be on some phase of your DMV suspension.
Then you have your plea - either Guilty or No Contest, your signature (remember what I said earlier, nothing is valid until you sign it, be sure of what you're getting into), what charge you're pleading to (triple check it), the date, and agreeing to be sentenced when the court receives the document, or when a temporary judge receives it.
As a plea bargain is a court document you will have to get it notarized. A real pain if there's not one by your lawyer's office and you're serving out your suspension. It also sucks that you have to go into a notary's office, with your head down low, and show them that you're taking a plea bargain. It's just what you have to do.
Not such a bargain
The plea bargain isn't a complicated document, but it's a daunting one. It's imposing, and it will mess with you emotionally, as once it's submitted, there's no going back.
But that's something you can use to your advantage - there's no going back, then it's time to move forward. Once you've agreed to the plea bargain, there's no more surprises, no more ambiguity. You know what you have to do, and when to do it by, and how to do it.
It's the biggest step to putting all of this behind you.