Clients often become concerned when they hear their attorney discuss plea deals soon after being retained. This concern is magnified when they go to court and hear the prosecutor and judge focus on pleading the case. Indeed, many clients believe that their defense attorney is trying to just get them to plead guilty so that the attorney can complete the case as quickly, and with as little effort, as possible, or that the judge is simply trying to get rid of their case by somehow forcing them to plead it out. None of this is true.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases in both state and federal courts throughout the country resolve by way of guilty plea. This is because our system is basically designed, at least initially, to plead cases. First, we do not have the resources to try every case. If every defendant proceeded to trial, it would break the system’s back. Further, it is not unusual for a defendant to find themselves in a position where the proofs in their case are such that a result reached by way of negotiated plea will be more favorable than one reached by way of jury verdict after trial. Moreover, if an attorney is devoting considerable time and effort to discussing plea deals, that means they are doing their job. It is the attorney’s obligation to be sure that the client understands all of their options, which include pleading the case out as opposed to going to trial. The judge hearing the case is going to expect that the defendant was so informed, and the ethics rules require it. With that said, if the client still wants a trial after listening to the attorney’s explanation of proposed plea deals, it is the client’s right to reject the plea deal and the attorney’s obligation to try the case.
These basic principles apply in all jurisdictions, although different courts implement them using their own unique procedures. For example, defendants in the federal system are required to complete and sign elaborate forms that describe their plea arrangement in some detail, and the judge taking the plea will review the contents of the form with them on the record at the plea hearing. The New Jersey Superior Court uses forms in criminal pleas that are even more detailed than those used in the federal system. Until recently, these forms were used only in adult criminal cases. Significantly, our Superior Court has now started requiring plea forms in juvenile cases. However, the New York State criminal courts do not use explanatory forms for plea deals, although the judge will explain the terms and conditions of any plea arrangement to the defendant on the record at the plea hearing. Continue reading