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Although there are several stages of criminal proceedings in Pennsylvania courts, it is possible to plead guilty at any time before a jury verdict makes the matter moot. In about 95 percent of the cases, defendants choose to forgo your trial and simply plead guilty for a reduction in penalties. There are different types of guilty pleas, however.
Most defendants enter into what is called a negotiated plea. A negotiated plea is a deal struck between your defense attorney and the prosecutor to reduce the penalties to defined parameters. A negotiated plea is a contract that must construe every detail of the sentencing or may intentionally leave certain elements open to judicial discretion at the sentencing hearing.
You can also enter into an open plea in Pennsylvania. This may mean that the judge has the discretion to sentence you to one of the counts charged in exchange for dropping the other charges. This can be the difference between a short sentence or a virtual life sentence. It is no secret that Pennsylvania overcharges defendants with multiple crimes for what is essentially the same act to force a plea deal.
Plea bargaining saves the Commonwealth the expense and risk of taking defendants to trial by guaranteeing a conviction. Nevertheless, like other negotiations, the prosecution offers the best plea bargains when their cases are the weakest. This is where your defense attorney comes into play. Your defense attorney can review the Discovery evidence provided by the prosecutor and determine whether it is better to hold out for a better offer or to simply go to trial against a weak criminal theory.
The negotiated or open guilty plea is only followed by sentencing and serving whatever sentence is imposed. While you may create a contingency in the plea agreement that you reserve the right to pursue certain pre-trial errors, such as the validity of a questionable search warrant, just about any other defense is waived.
The nearly exclusive manner of obtaining any relief or reduction from the sentence after you sign the plea contract is to demonstrate that you would not have pled guilty except for the ineffective representation of your attorney and their advice to plead guilty. This can occur when you have strong defenses, had a better plea before that was rejected, or when the parameters of the plea were not fairly discussed with you before an agreement is signed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that guilty pleas are essentially commercial contracts and that the validity of a plea is analyzed under the same contract law factors. Therefore, it is impossible to undo a guilty plea and go to trial or fight for a dismissal of charges if the plea was entered in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner.
What this means is that you cannot be forced under duress of violence to enter the plea, or enter it without knowing the consequences, or enter it when you were unaware of defenses available to you or key evidence of innocence.
Of course, in practice, it is much harder to enforce these rights to nullifying a guilty plea. This is because the Commonwealth officials have even more to lose if you do reverse a plea in a weak case and wind up with an acquittal. The prosecutor can be sued for malicious prosecution in some cases. And the arresting officers can be charged with false arrest in other cases.
Even if you do nullify a guilty plea, you simply start the process over again. This is unless you prove that you are “innocent as a matter of law” or that the Pennsylvania double jeopardy clause technically protects you from prosecution. But this only occurs when the prosecutor engages in egregious conduct to convict you at all costs. Some examples of egregious conduct are suppressing critical evidence that would establish innocence or conspiring with trial witnesses to fabricate evidence or testimony.
For all these reasons, it is important that you obtain the most experienced counsel before you enter a guilty plea. These pleas are difficult to undo and may not be quite what you bargained for when you get a little sharper on the law or weaknesses of the case later on.