It's a fact that the overwhelming number of criminal cases in Florida state courts will be resolved through plea negotiations. Over 90% of all criminal cases in this state will never see a jury.
This is because prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys routinely engage in plea negotiations where the state and defense agree upon a sentence that is often significantly lower than the maximum the accused would face if convicted at trial.
Plea negotiations are a way to move cases along so that criminal court dockets do not become backed up with unnecessary trial cases. First-time offenders, non-violent crimes, and relatively minor offenses should and are often resolved by plea.
However, if you are charged with a crime and you have little knowledge of the criminal justice process, then you may not know the difference between a good plea and a bad plea. It is your attorney's job to work toward the best resolution of your case. This entails working toward a good plea.
First and foremost, decide if your case is likely a trial case. Cases should proceed to trial when no reasonable resolution can be reached or when you are factually innocent and you have supporting evidence that can help establish this fact. Your word against another person's word is not great evidence of innocence. I have seen people convicted based on the testimony of one witness. So before you disregard all potential plea offers, determine whether you are willing to put your case before a jury. Also keep in mind that if you are factually innocent and that can be established through the discovery process (such as providing defense witnesses and exhibits to the prosecutor) and the taking of depositions, the state may decide to dismiss your case (nolle prosequi) prior to trial.
If your case is not resolvable, then your case may be a trial case. If you are charged with a very serious crime (such as murder) or you have a lot of priors and the state is either not offering you a plea or offering you a plea that you would never accept, then you will likely be taking your case to trial. Also, if your crime carries a mandatory minimum sentence and the state will not waive it, your case may be a trial case.
So assuming that you do not fall into any of these categories, you should be looking at the possibility of resolving your case by plea. So the question remains, what distinguishes a "good deal" from a "bad deal?"
A good deal would be a resolution such as diversion (such as Pretrial Intervention). Pretrial Intervention, or PTI, is a program that allows you to maintain your plea of not guilty while completing conditions such as classes, community service hours, and payment of restitution if applicable. You don't plead guilty when you enter PTI and if you complete the program successfully, your case will be dismissed.
However, PTI is only offered to first-time offenders for eligible offenses with the alleged victim's consent. If none of those things apply, then you may have to look at other options.
The next thing to consider when resolving your case is whether adjudication will be withheld or whether adjudication will be imposed. This is very important. A withhold of adjudication is not a conviction under Florida law. You do not become a convicted felon nor do you lose your civil rights. If the offense is eligible and you have no prior convictions of any kind on your record, you may be able to seal the arrest once the case is closed.
First-time offenders charged with non-violent crimes should receive withholds of adjudication.
If an adjudication will be imposed as part of your plea, understand that an adjudication is a conviction. If pleading to a misdemeanor, it is still a conviction (albeit not a felony conviction). A conviction of any kind on your record cannot be sealed or expunged. It will also prevent you from sealing or expunging any other criminal record. If the conviction is for a drug offense, you will lose your driver's license for two years under Florida law.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, understand that by pleading guilty or no contest to ANY criminal offense could result in your deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not care whether adjudication was withheld or not. So if you are not a U.S. citizen and you need to know the immigration consequences of pleading guilty or no contest to a criminal charge, you may want to consult an immigration attorney in addition to a criminal attorney prior to entering your plea.
If you are pleading guilty or no contest to a domestic violence charge (felony or misdemeanor), even if adjudication is withheld, you cannot get the charge off your record. This will also prevent you from being able to obtain a concealed weapon permit in Florida.
Does your plea entail jail time or prison time? If so, how much? What is the most you could receive if you went to trial and were found guilty? Do you have a prior record? Have you been sentenced to jail or prison previously? Is there a mandatory minimum sentence in your case that is being waived?
These are all questions to consider if your plea entails jail or prison. If you are charged with a very serious offense, then prison or jail may be unavoidable if you are considering a plea. In this situation, you need to look at the evidence against you, look at your prior record, and look at the maximum that you are facing. In some situations, a jail or prison sentence may be a good plea, relatively speaking. For instance, if you have three prior felony convictions and are charged with armed robbery with a firearm facing a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence and the state offers you a year and a day (366) in state prison, that may be a good plea.
If you were a first-time offender charged with stealing $400 worth of sweaters from Macy's and the state offered you the same plea, that would be a bad plea.
It's all relative and depends on your charge, priors, and what you are looking at as a potential maximum sentence or even potential mandatory minimum sentence.
In sum, it is important to know the difference between a good plea and a bad plea before you accept responsibility in court for your criminal charges. Guilty or no contest pleas have long-reaching consequences that you should be aware of. Pleading guilty or no contest should not be taken lightly. However, if you are charged with a crime and the evidence is sufficient to convict you, you need to strongly consider it.