In my previous DUI article, we looked at pre-trials. We learned that there can be multiple pre-trials in a DUI (or any criminal) case, and that the ultimate goal of a pre-trial is to work out a plea arrangement that will avoid a person actually holding a trial on his or her charge. It was also pointed out that trials are rare in DUI cases, and that the overwhelming majority of drunk driving charges are resolved through a plea. But what is a plea? How is a plea different from a plea bargain (if it is)? What about a sentence bargain? In this article, I want to provide straight answers to these questions and explain how lawyers use pleas, plea bargains and sentence bargains to resolve DUI and criminal cases.
First, let’s define things a bit. In this article and in the larger world, the word “plea” is generally (but not always) used to mean a plea of guilty to some charge, even if not the one originally brought. In my recent 2-part article about the arraignment stage of a DUI case, we were reminded that when a person is first charged with Operating While Intoxicated (OWI), he or she should always plead “not guilty” at the arraignment. In the broadest sense (as it relates to DUI and criminal cases), a plea is an answer, or response, to a charge. Therefore, we begin a case by pleading not guilty to the original charge that’s brought. We’ll get into this more later, but so that the reader doesn’t fear this will some long, boring and useless article about legal procedure, the primary reason a person should plead not guilty at his or her arraignment is because very often, a plea bargain can be worked out down the road so that the person does not wind up being convicted of that original charge. For example, in the case of an OWI charge (which carries 6 points, a fine of up to $500, and a 6-month suspension of the driver’s license with NO driving whatsoever for the first 30 days, followed by 5 months of restricted driving, like to and from work), it is common for the lawyer to be able to negotiate with the prosecutor so that the client pleads to a less severe charge, like Operating While Visibly Impaired (usually called “Impaired”), which only carries 4 points (as opposed to 6), a fine of up to $300 (instead of $500) and will merely restrict a driver’s license for 90 days (rather than the tougher suspension that is imposed for an OWI). In other words, you start by pleading “not guilty” so a better deal can be worked out later on.
Not all pleas, however, are plea bargains, but all plea bargains and plea deals (a “plea bargain” and a “plea deal” are the same thing) are pleas. Thus, someone might say that a particular case was resolved by a plea, but that may or may not include a plea bargain, or plea deal. And before we sort this out, here’s one more thing to throw in the mix: Sometimes, the prosecutor is unwilling to allow a plea bargain, and some courts, to kind of make up for that, will work out a sentence bargain and agree to certain specific terms for what will ultimately happen to the person, like an agreement for no jail. In most cases, a plea is negotiated (lawyers most often say “worked out”) between the prosecutor and defense lawyer at a pre-trial meeting, and then it is “put on the record,” meaning the resolution is finalized by the Judge in open court.