If you were to go by what you see on television, you would think that every arrest is resolved by a jury trial. The truth is, over 95% of all criminal cases are resolved by plea or are dismissed before they ever go to trial.
You are not required to take a plea. You have an absolute right to take your case to trial. However, you should consider a few things before making the very serious and possibly life-changing decision to put your fate in the hands of a jury.
First and foremost, what is the plea offer? Is the state offering you Pretrial Intervention or 10 years in prison? If the offer is reasonable and something that you are willing to live with, you should consider the benefits of accepting a plea over the risks of going to trial and losing. Will the plea result in your becoming a convicted felon? Does the plea involve jail or prison time? Will the plea have some sort of collateral consequence, such as a driver’s license revocation or sex offender designation? Will the plea subject you to deportation?
Think about those things before you ask a jury to decide whether or not you are guilty.
Secondly, how strong is the state’s case? How strong is your defense? Do you have witnesses or evidence that you can present? What kind of evidence does the state have? Did you confess to your crime? Are the witnesses that will be testifying against you credible? Is there physical evidence - DNA, fingerprints - that can link you to the crime?
If the evidence is legally and factually sufficient to convict you then you need to consider the risk of being convicted versus the likelihood of acquittal.
Sometimes, the plea is so unreasonable that you really have no choice but to go to trial. Especially if you have serious felony priors and have been designated a “career criminal,” then you may face lengthy prison terms as well as mandatory minimum terms.
Even non career criminal cases may involve mandatory minimum prison terms. Firearm crimes and drug trafficking crimes are two categories of offenses that involve legislatively-mandated minimum prison terms.
If a mandatory minimum applies to your case, is the state willing to waive it? If so, you may want to consider a plea. If not, understand that if you are found guilty at trial, the judge has no discretion and MUST sentence you to the prescribed minimum term.
Thirdly, do you have a lengthy criminal record? If you are charged with a crime carrying a maximum of 5 years in prison, do you have the kind of prior record that would make a judge want to give you the maximum should you be found guilty?
If you have no priors and are going to trial on a non-violent offense, chances are the judge will not “max” you out. However, priors or not, if you are convicted of a violent offense, chances are you will do some time, either in county jail or state prison.
Bottom line, if you have something to lose - a great job, a home, a family. A life. Then you strongly need to consider other options than trial. A guilty verdict can destroy your life. If you are in a position to obtain a reasonable plea offer, swallowing your pride and accepting a deal may be in your best interest.
On the other hand, if you are factually innocent, the plea offer is outrageous, or you have a particularly strong defense to a weak case, then trial may be in your best interest, better than accepting responsibility for allegations that the state may not be able to prove.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving Miami-Dade and Broward.