There are a variety of reasons to seek to plea out a case. In some cases, the case is so strong, including a confession by the accused, leaving little alternative but to seek a plea. In other cases, however, there may be advantages to resolving a case short of trial because the deal is a good one that results in no criminal record. Different alternatives are discussed briefly below.
In many plea negotiations, the government and the defendant are in agreement as to the bargained for outcome. In others, they can be opposed, and a good defense lawyer can convince a judge to grant the accused’s request to resolve the case, even over the prosecutor’s objection. Although plea options and negotiations should be discussed in detail with the defense lawyer, there are a number of different alternatives:
A. Dismissal on Payment of Court Costs. This type of outcome is possible in some minor cases, such as certain cases charging driving with a suspended license, or bouncing a check. Upon payment of “court costs,” the equivalent of a fine, the case is dismissed. The accused does not have to formally admit guilt. As noted, this may be available only in certain minor cases. As a general rule, the prosecution must agree.
B. Pre Trial Probation. This is the equivalent of an outright admission without having to admit guilt, but the case is left open for a period of time (frequently six months) during which time the accused promises not to get into more trouble, and possibly to do something else, such as community service. Pre Trial Probation is available in only certain, usually minor, cases. As a general rule, the prosecution must agree.
C. Continuance Without a Finding. This outcome, also referred to as a “CWOF,” is widely available and widely used even in relatively more serious District Court cases. Through such a plea, the accused admits guilt or pleads no contest, and the court determines that there is sufficient evidence to support a guilty finding, but does not enter one. Instead, it continues the case without a finding for a period of time (usually six months to a year) during which time the accused is on probation. A court may order community service, classes or some other terms of probation as well. So long as the accused satisfies the probationary conditions, the case is dismissed without a conviction at the end of the probationary period.
The major advantage of the CWOF is that there is no criminal conviction. Additionally, a defense lawyer can often obtain this result even over the prosecution’s objection. The CWOF is widely available for those accused with no prior criminal record.
D. Guilty Finding. This outcome obviously entails a conviction. However, in some cases, it may still make sense to plea a case out to a guilty finding, such as a more serious case where a jail sentence can be avoided and probation obtained instead.