The vast majority of criminal cases in the United States are resolved through plea agreements. In other words, most criminal cases in the U.S.A. never end up in a trial. While people generally understand that a victim of a crime has the right to be heard at a criminal trial, that privilege is of no value if a case never ends up in a trial. With this in mind, it’s important to understand that an important right of a crime victim is to be informed of a plea agreement in a reasonably timely manner. In addition, a crime victim has the right to be consulted when it comes to the proposal to resolve a criminal case through a plea agreement.
Overview of the Plea Agreement Process
There can be some differences in the plea agreement process from one court to another, from one jurisdiction to another. With that said, there are some common elements associated with the plea agreement process more generally.
Technically speaking, the defendant in a case is the party permitted to initiate the plea process. Practically, that is not always the manner in which the plea process in a criminal case commences.
In essential terms, the prosecution and defense barter back and forth to come up with an agreement regarding the disposition of a criminal case. A plea agreement includes a number of elements:
- Agreement on charges to which a defendant will plea (the typical criminal case is comprised of multiple charges lodged against a defendant)
- Agreement on a sentence to be recommended to the court
- Agreement on fines, costs, fees, and restitution
There is an important factor associated with plea agreements that oftentimes is overlooked. Specifically, even though the parties to a criminal case reach a plea agreement, that deal doesn’t need to be accepted by the court. The reality is that in California and across the United States, a court in a criminal case is not legally obliged to accept a plea deal between the prosecution and defense. Having said this, in nearly all cases courts do accept and adopt plea agreements reached by parties in criminal cases.
Cases That Require Specific Involvement of the Victim in the Plea Process
There are some types of crimes in California and in other jurisdictions across the United States that require a specific level of involvement in the plea process by the victim in a particular case. This requirement can be found both in state constitutions as well as state laws.
A prime example in which the specific involvement of a crime victim in the plea process is a case involving some type of sex crime. These include cases involving rape, sexual assault, and similar types of crime.
In addition to mandates establishing by law or in constitutions, individual prosecutor’s offices usually establish protocols to be followed when it comes to the involvement of a victim in the plea process. Individual prosecutor’s offices also nearly always have victim-witness coordinators in this day and age. A victim-witness coordinator works with a crime victim during the plea process.
The specific ways in which a crime victim should be involved in the plea process include:
- Being notified that plea negotiations are underway
- Being provided an opportunity to be heard by the prosecutor about a possible plea in a criminal case
- Being advised that a plea agreement has been reached between the parties to a criminal case, including specific information about the elements of a plea agreement
What If a Victim Objects To a Proposed Plea Agreement
As mentioned previously, the vast majority of criminal cases in California and across the United States end up resolved via a plea agreement. As a consequence, there are a notable number of instances in which a victim of crime doesn’t agree with the manner in which a case has been pleaded out. In other words, a victim of a crime may have very real objections to a proposed plea agreement.
Ideally, a prosecutor has an open-door policy about an objection to a proposed plea agreement in a criminal case. Simply, a prosecutor ideally will “hear a victim out” in regard to any objections to a proposed plea agreement.
If a victim objects to a proposed plea agreement and a prosecuting attorney makes no modification to that deal, a victim of crime is not without recourse. Generally speaking, a victim of crime has the right to present at a sentencing hearing in a criminal case. During sentencing proceedings, a crime victim has the opportunity to present what normally is known as a “victim impact statement.”
In a victim impact statement, a crime victim has the ability to express objections directly to the court about a proposed plea agreement. Judges generally do pay attention to what a victim expresses in regard to a plea agreement. If a judge is going to be motivated to balk at accepting what is contained in a plea agreement, what the victim says in a case is apt to be a major factor.