The Truth Behind the Plea Bargain

After a drunk driving crash, often families must face a painful and drawn-out legal process in order to hold the offender accountable for their crime. It involves numerous court appearances and hearings, and sometimes after months of these proceedings, a prosecutor will decide to offer the offender a plea bargain. This can be painful for some victims and survivors who feel like they need their day in court in order to obtain justice.

Why are Plea Bargains Necessary?

So why do prosecutors sometimes offer a plea bargain in substance impaired driving cases?

Joshua D. Ross, Assistant District Attorney with the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office in Fort Worth, explains unfortunately, plea bargains are a necessary cog in the wheel of the criminal justice system due to the volume of cases on a docket. A benefit of a plea bargains is that it resolves the case without the risks of the unknown, for example, an alleged offender proven innocent of charges.

A plea bargain also guarantees the alleged offender will have the offense on their criminal record. Oftentimes this will be a lesser charge but in doing so, the defendant waives their right to an appeal. The risk of going to trial is that an alleged offender can get off and there will be no record of the offense on their criminal record. If they were to be charged again on the same, or similar offense, of substance impaired driving, it would show as their first offense, which could result in a lighter sentence.

Ross also acknowledges that a disadvantage of accepting a plea is that the alleged offender is allowed to accept a lesser charge and the victim, survivor and their family may be left feeling they did not receive justice for themselves or their loved one.

When determining to accept a plea, the prosecutor evaluates several factors:

  • The strengths of the case
  • The defendant’s criminal history
  • Office policies
  • The wishes of the victim or deceased person’s family.

Other things the prosecution may need to consider in deciding to plea bargain include who is the jury? Where do they live? What time of year is it? And who will be the presiding judge? All of these considerations must be weighed as they can all factor into the judgement should a case go to trial.

Deciding to plea bargain a substance impaired driving case is a risk that the prosecution sometimes has to take in order to guarantee a charge, which can be difficult for victims and their families to understand. However, in most jurisdictions, the State has just as much a right to a jury trial as the defendant. So in cases where the prosecution feels confident that they can obtain a conviction with the jury selected, it’s worth the risk to refuse to make a plea offer.

Ultimately, it’s important for victims and survivors to understand that the decision whether or not to offer a plea resides with the prosecutor. However, even if a plea bargain is agreed upon by the prosecution and defense, a judge does not have to honor that plea and can give a sentence within the range of punishment for the offense.

Trials can be confusing and emotionally exhausting for victims and their families. That is why in many areas MADD offers court accompaniment as part of our Victim Services. If you or a loved one has been impacted by a drunk driving crash, please call our Help Line at 877.MADD.HELP or email to connect with a MADD Victim Advocate in your area.