Virginia Criminal Law: To Plea or Not to Plea

There are three major ways that a criminal case can be resolved. It is important to know what those three major options are when facing criminal charges. Each of these three options carry different pros and cons.

So what are these three options, and which is the best in your particular case?

Pleading Guilty, No Contest, or Alford

The first option that you have when facing a criminal charge is to enter a plea to a charge. A plea can be entered at any point during a criminal proceeding. For example, a plea can be entered during your arraignment, right before your trial, or even after the prosecution has finished presenting their evidence.

The benefit of a plea is that it removes the ability for a prosecutor to ask for specific types of sentencing by a jury. It also has the benefit of expediting the process. A plea may be appropriate if you do not have any valid defenses to the criminal charges.

Additionally, a plea puts the resolution of your case and sentencing in the hands of your judge. Judges can often be lenient depending on the facts of your case. Judges have extensive powers in deferring or waiving your sentence. However, juries have less power to depart from mandatory sentencing requirements.

Demanding a Criminal Trial

You also have the right to demand a full trial. The Commonwealth Attorney is the office responsible for pursuing criminal charges in Virginia. You have the right to require the Commonwealth Attorney to present sufficient evidence to find you guilty.

Often times, there may be deficiencies in the evidence that the Commonwealth Attorney has acquired. For example, the officer that arrested you may have done something wrong, or a witness is unavailable for trial.

Alternatively, the Commonwealth Attorney may be overestimating the strength of their evidence. Some juries may not think that the evidence the Commonwealth Attorney has acquired is enough to convict you.

The benefit of having a trial is that is forces all of these issues into the light. If there is a significant deficiency in the Commonwealth Attorney’s evidence, you could be found not guilty.

However, if the Commonwealth Attorney is able to prove their case, you could face harsher sentencing from the jury. Juries in Virginia are typically more harsh than a judge would be if you are found guilty. Therefore, trial can be both rewarding and risky depending on the unique facts of your case.

Entering into a Plea Agreement

The last major option that you have is to negotiate with the Commonwealth Attorney to receive a specific sentence. Common options in negotiating a plea agreement include; a) amending your charge to something less serious, b) suspending any jail sentence you may receive so you do not have to go to jail or c) having a deferred disposition whereby if you complete classes or some other requirements your case could be dismissed.

The benefit of a plea agreement is that you know exactly what will happen after your criminal case concludes so long as you follow the rules. The downside is that you often waive your right to an appeal, so any agreement you work out is the end of the line for your case.

Why You Need a Lawyer

Criminal law is extremely fact specific. It is impossible to recommend one course of action over another without fully understanding the nature of the charges against you and the facts surrounding how you were charged. There are a number of things which, if true, could mean that a plea agreement is the best option. Alternatively, some things could have happened which would encourage a full trial.

At the end of the day, many criminal charges carry the possibility of jail time. There are also several other consequences that can arise out of a conviction. Therefore, you should speak to a local attorney to determine what course of action you should take.