A man charged with three counts of soliciting a teenage boy for sex in Florida was recently sentenced to three years in prison. The man had initially pleaded not guilty to the sex crime charges after his arrest. However, as his trial date approached, the man apparently become more concerned about the possible sentence of 20 years in prison he might serve if convicted on all three felony counts. Perhaps based on those fears, the man changed his plea to no-contest. Under that plea, he agreed not to fight the charges, but also did not have to admit guilt.
Although the bargaining in this case has not been fully disclosed, a plea agreement may have been involved. That method of resolution seems to be the latest trend in criminal felony cases. Plea bargains are increasingly becoming the preferred method by which federal prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice resolve their criminal cases, as evidenced by the rise in guilty pleas in the past twenty years from 84% to 97%, while the number of federal defendants going to trial in the same period decreased by nearly two-thirds.
As part of a plea deal, a criminal defendant typically pleads guilty in exchange for prosecutors reducing or dropping additional charges. Unfortunately, critics fear that plea bargaining may pressure the innocently accused into accepting deals, at the expense of their constitutional rights. Considering that Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have dramatically increased -- and in some cases quadrupled -- potential prison sentences for many felonies in recent years, more and more defendants might be pressured into accepting plea agreements rather than risking an unfavorable trial outcome.
Constitutional procedural rights which are available to defendants at trial might also be sacrificed in plea bargaining. Notably, one federal court judge recently rejected a plea agreement between the Justice Department and a man facing child pornography charges. The judge determined that a provision in the deal -- where the man agreed to waive his right to a trial -- was unconstitutional. In two other decisions this year, the U.S. Supreme Court also found that the defendants hadn't been adequately represented by their attorneys during the plea-bargaining process.
If you are facing felony charges for an alleged sex crime, make sure that you have an experienced criminal law attorney who can defend your procedural rights and thoroughly advise you of all your options throughout the entire process -- including any plea bargaining.
Source: Hartford Courant, "Former Portland 1st Selectman Sentenced In Florida To 3 Years In Child Sex Case," Katherine Ogden, Sept. 17, 2012