When the defense and the prosecution negotiate a plea bargain, the final step is going before a judge for approval of the plea bargain. There is no absolute guarantee that a court will accept any plea bargain agreed upon by the parties. Court are independent bodies, and part of the job of judges is to carefully review proposed plea bargains to ensure that they comply with applicable laws and that they are fair given the facts of the individual case, the history and circumstances of the defendant, and the aggravating and mitigating factors that exist in the particular case. So, when judges, perform this function, how can it affect a plea bargain that the prosecution and defense have agreed upon?
Plea bargains sometimes are an agreement that the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser charge, and leave sentencing up to the judge. Sometimes, plea bargains include specific agreements about what the sentence will be. Sometimes they involve an agreement to a just a certain aspect of the sentence: for example, a plea bargain could include an agreement that a defendant will not be sentenced to prison, but will leave to the discretion of the judge exactly what the sentence will be. If you are considering a plea bargain, it is important to have a clear understanding of exactly what agreements the plea bargain includes, and what, if anything, will be left up to the judge.
Judges can accept or reject plea bargains. They cannot force a defendant to serve a harsher sentence than the one agreed upon, without the consent of the parties. They can, however, impose a more lenient sentence than the one agreed upon without the consent of the prosecution.
In a recent case, People V. Mazzarelli, the Colorado Court of Appeals determined that a judge making a plea deal’s sentence less harsh does not allow the state to rescind the offer.
What this means for defendants
This decision is a favorable outcome for defendants who have agreed to a plea. As it now stands, if a judge wanted to accept a plea bargain but impose a harsher sentence than the one the parties agreed to, the defendant does not have to accept that and the parties can continue to negotiate. If the judge were to impose a more lenient sentence than the one agreed upon, the prosecution does not have the same right to back out of the plea bargain.
Theoretically, even after coming to a plea agreement involving a stipulation, an attorney can advocate for more lenient sentence without jeopardizing the offer you agreed to accept. In this sense, a plea bargain caps the negative outcomes for your case, while more positive outcomes may still exist as a possibility.
Whenever you face charges, you must have legal counsel who not only understands the letter of the law but has the skill you need to protect your rights, and the knowledge to advise you about all aspects of your case.