We see in movies, and even in the news, stories of suspects “flipping” on one another. What does it really mean? Generally speaking, it is a matter of sharing evidence that a prosecutor values in exchange for benefits to one’s own legal situation. The prosecutor may have bigger fish to fry and be content with reducing or eliminating charges against someone lower on the totem pole in order to get to a bigger fish. This is more formally referred to as turning state’s evidence. What could that mean for the typical defendant?
Plea Bargaining Federal Rules
There are federal rules that must be followed when a defendant utilizes their constitutional right to turn state’s evidence. In exchange for the defendant pleading either guilty or nolo contendere, or making a plea conditional on a review by an appellate court, the plea deal process would move forward. It would ensure that the defendant is advised and questioned under oath in open court, and several issues must be clarified:
- The defendant does have the right to plead not guilty;
- A defendant has the right to counsel and to have that counsel appointed by the court if needed;
- The defendant’s right to have counsel present throughout all proceedings and the trial;
- The government has the right to use information provided under oath if prosecuting false statements or perjury;
- The defendant may choose to plead guilty but must understand the potential consequences of such a plea;
- Maximum penalties associated with such charges, including possible incarceration, fines, probation, and parole must be spelled out to the defendant;
- Mandatory minimum penalties for each of the charges must be clear;
- There may be court-ordered restitution assigned to the defendant;
- The court has the right to order a special assessment;
- A judge must adhere to sentencing guidelines ;
- A defendant’s right to testify at trial, to refrain from incriminating themselves, to confront accusatorial witnesses, and compel witness testimony;
- A defendant waives the above rights in the event a plea deal is accepted;
- There is no ability to appeal if a plea deal is accepted;
- There is a likelihood of deportation for non-citizens.
The court must ensure that the defendant was not forced, coerced, or threatened to make a plea and that it was entered into voluntarily. In open court an exchange between the judge and the defendant must establish that the agreement was arrived at fairly and that there was a factual basis for the plea, meaning evidence that the defendant really is guilty of the crimes listed in the plea agreement.
Changing One’s Mind
A defendant may withdraw from such an agreement for any reason prior to the court’s accepting it, or with a reasonable explanation if the court has accepted the plea but not yet imposed a sentence. Otherwise, it may be too late for a defendant to change one’s mind. Continue reading