We receive countless calls every day from people wanting our firm to represent them in their criminal cases, but we can only accept a small portion of those cases. Of the cases that we do accept, it is with the understanding that we plan to take the client’s case to trial; however, we also advise our clients that the ultimate decision as to whether a case does go to trial is completely up to them. While we are trial lawyers, we ultimately understand the client must choose the option that they believe to best for themselves.
So that raises a major question. When should a client take a plea deal? As much as I hate to use the typical lawyer answer, it really does depend on quite a few things. First is determining the strength of the prosecution’s case. If the prosecution’s case is so weak that it cannot exclude any and all reasonable doubt, then the case is definitely one that should go to trial. If the case is one in which the prosecution’s evidence is incredibly strong, then obviously that could cause a client to consider pleading guilty.
Still, the question still turns to whether a client should take a plea deal. Really, the answer hinges on whether the plea deal is in the client’s best interests. For example, let’s say that a person is charged with a low-level drug or property crime, and the person is a first-time offender. The prosecution comes at the person with a plea deal, but the catch is that the person will have to serve three years in jail. In that situation, even though the person may not spend a significant amount of time in jail after parole eligibility and earned time kicks in, it still may not be in the person’s best interests to accept that plea deal. It could be that the better choice would be for the client to enter an open plea and try to convince the court to either give no jail time or place the person in an alternative-to-sentencing program, such as drug court or non-adjudication.
But let’s look at it from another angle. Let’s say that a person is charged with capital murder, which carries a maximum penalty of either death or life in prison. The evidence is incredibly strong, and there is a very low likelihood that the person would be able to get a not-guilty verdict. The prosecution decides that it would like to offer a plea deal of 20 years for either manslaughter (which carries a maximum of 20 years) or second-degree murder (which carries a minimum of 20 years and a max of 40 years). Obviously, 20 years is better than life in prison or death; however, if the person was to plead to manslaughter, parole eligibility and earned time could lead to the person being released much earlier (assuming MDOC applies the earned time, but that’s a topic for another day) than if the person was to plead to second-degree murder. For either manslaughter or second-degree murder, it would be in the client’s best interests to plead guilty to avoid a lifetime conviction, but that does not mean that it would be in the client’s best interest to plead guilty to whatever plea deal the that prosecution might offer. Rather, it would be in the client’s best interests for the lawyer to push for either less jail time or for the prosecution to agree to a cap as far as how much time they would seek, which in turn could lead the client to enter an open plea and request that the judge imposes less jail time.My point is this: taking a plea deal is an incredibly important decision. It should never be taken lightly, and the client and lawyer should always make it a point to sit down, talk about the possibilities and potential outcomes, and think outside of the box to get the best possible outcome for the client given the circumstances. At the end of the day, though, whether a client should accept a plea deal is going to depend on the client, and what they feel is in their own best interests.