How Does Plea Bargaining Work in New Jersey?
Sometimes criminal trials are necessary or even unavoidable. When going to trial, you want to have an attorney who is certified by The Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Criminal Trial Attorney. However, the vast majority of criminal cases in New Jersey are resolved outside of the trial setting through a process called plea bargaining (also known as “negotiating a plea” or a “plea deal”).
Plea bargain: what is it and how does it work in NJ?
Plea bargaining is an alternative method of resolving criminal cases. Rather than going to trial, the prosecutor and defendant (the person accused of committing a crime) enter a plea agreement in exchange for a reduced charge, a more lenient sentence, another concession, such as downgrading the matter to municipal court, or some combination of these.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will negotiate with the prosecutor to secure the best possible terms for the defendant. If the defendant accepts the plea offer, it will be presented to the court for approval. Once approved, a plea bargain becomes legally binding and the terms of the agreement will be upheld by the court at sentencing.
The scope of plea bargaining in New Jersey has limitations. Under the law, prosecutors must:
- Only negotiate plea agreements with defendants who are either represented by counsel or who have knowingly waived their right to counsel on the record
- Make sentence recommendations that uphold minimum sentencing requirements
- Consult with complaining witnesses and/or victims about plea deals
In addition, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are forbidden from coercing or pressuring any defendant to accept a plea deal.
What’s the difference between a trial and a plea bargain?
Trials and plea bargaining in New Jersey are very distinct from each other. Each has various pros and cons, and, potentially, different outcomes. Criminal trials in New Jersey can be decided by the judge (bench trial) or a jury (jury trial).
In a bench trial, the judge’s role is to determine whether the defendant is guilty and, if so, sentence the defendant accordingly.
In a jury trial, the judge’s role is to ensure the trial proceeds and jurors act in accordance with the law. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge determines the sentence at a later date.
A typical trial might include these basic stages:
Each attorney shares what they believe the evidence will prove by outlining their legal position, as well as some basic facts about the case.
Presenting the case
The prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence is presented to support the arguments made in the opening statements. The prosecutor must present a case. The defendant can attack the prosecutor’s case and may choose whether to present any evidence of its own.
Individuals are questioned on the stand, through direct or cross-examination, to support (or discredit) the witness’ testimony and assertions.
Each attorney gets an opportunity to comment on the evidence presented in the case and attempts to persuade the judge or jurors to adopt an interpretation of the case that is favorable to their position.
Plea bargaining in New Jersey
The plea bargaining process, on the other hand, looks quite different compared to a trial. There are no witnesses, nor is there an opportunity to present your case to a jury or judge. Only the prosecutor, defendant, and defense attorney participate in the plea negotiations—the judge is not involved. Plea negotiations may be formal or informal, and they may not even take place in the courtroom.
Even if the defendant decides to accept a plea deal, the judge may or may not approve it. If the judge approves the plea deal during the plea hearing, the case will proceed to a sentencing hearing, at which time the judge will officially hand down a sentence consistent with the terms of the plea deal. If the judge does not enforce the terms of the plea agreement, a defendant is entitled to take back his plea without anything he previously said being used against him.
Types of plea agreements in New Jersey
Each plea bargain is unique, because plea bargaining in New Jersey relies heavily on the prosecutor’s discretion. Depending on the circumstances of your case, the prosecutor may choose to offer one, or a combination, of the following types of plea agreements:
Pleading guilty to a less serious crime than the crime you were originally charged with.
Pleading guilty in exchange for the prosecutor recommending a less severe sentence.
Pleading guilty to some of the crimes you are charged with, in exchange for the prosecutor dropping the others.
Pleading guilty in exchange for the prosecution not pursuing aggravating factors in your case. (Aggravating factors are elements that would typically merit an increased sentence, such as the use of a weapon or a history of similar convictions.)
Circumstances under which plea bargains should be considered an option
Negotiating a plea deal might not make sense in all cases. But when used appropriately, plea bargaining in New Jersey can be an effective tool for a defendant with a criminal charge, as it grants defendants more control over the outcome of their cases.
When should defendants accept a plea agreement?
If you’ve been charged with a crime, a plea deal might be the right choice for you if:
- The state’s evidence is strong
- The plea bargain focuses on rehabilitation, rather than punishment (i.e. a diversion program instead of jail time)
- You would rather accept a lighter sentence than risk a heavier one
- You are not prepared for the uncertainty or expense of a trial
- The plea bargain significantly reduces your charges
Am I required to accept a plea bargain in New Jersey?
No. If the prosecutor offers a plea deal, you are not obligated to accept it.
Accused of a crime in New Jersey? Contact us before pleading guilty
The decision to accept a plea deal should not be taken lightly, nor should it be made under the pressure of coercion. If you are facing criminal charges, contacting a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney is a crucial first step to protecting your rights—and your future.
At Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski, we have the experience needed to weigh the likelihood that your case will be successful at trial against the potential benefits of accepting a plea agreement offered by the prosecution. We help you understand the full implications of the options available to you, and fight to help you reach the most favorable possible outcome in your case.
Schedule your consultation with our team today.