So, your Attorney has successfully negotiated a favorable plea agreement, and you have decided to enter a plea on your criminal charges, but what happens next?
Once your Attorney has negotiated a plea deal on your behalf, the matter will be scheduled for an entry of plea hearing. On your scheduled plea hearing day, you and your Attorney will be present in the courtroom with the Judge, the Prosecutor and a Court Reporter who will create a record of everything said in court.
If the plea involves a change in the original charges to different charges, the prosecutor will ask the court for permission to file an Amended Information. The Amended Information will detail the new, reduced charges you have agreed to plead to and your Attorney will review it with you. Once the Amended Information is before the Judge, the Judge will likely ask the parties to tell her what the plea agreement is. This usually includes either your Attorney or the Prosecutor telling the court the entirety of the agreement negotiated by your Attorney on your behalf and the Prosecutor. Usually something like this, “Your Honor, the parties have agreed that in exchange for the Defendant pleading guilty to one count of Theft by Shoplifting, the State will dismiss count number two and will recommend a $50 fine.” The Judge will then ask you if this is your understanding of the plea agreement. If it is, then the matter will proceed forward.
The Judge will then make sure that you understand all of your rights including the following generally:
Your right to have an Attorney at all times during the proceedings.
Your right to confront the witnesses against you. That is your right to have your Attorney ask witnesses questions in open court.
Your right to use the subpoena power of the court to make people appear to testify.
Your right to remain silent, and the Judge or Jury cannot use you silence against you.
Your right to file a motion to suppress, which is a motion to have evidence thrown out of the case if it was obtained by law enforcement in violation of your rights.
Your right to appeal any final decision of the court.
A full rights advisory can be found on the Nebraska Supreme Court Website.
In Accordance with the process of the Court assuring you understand your rights, the court will also ask you questions to assure you are entering your plea of your own free will and you understand what you are doing by entering your plea. Additionally, the Court will make sure you as the Defendant understand the Court does not have to go along with any agreement you have with the Prosecutor in terms of sentencing recommendations. The Court always has the option of sentencing to you to whatever they feel is appropriate after they hear the facts of the case. In the example above, the Court would not have to order a $50 fine just because your Attorney and the Prosecutor agreed to recommend the fine to the court. The court could give a lesser fine, a higher fine, jail time, probation etc. The court is free to impose any sentence available under the law.
Once the Court is satisfied you understand all of your rights, you are entering your plea voluntarily and you are not under the influence of any drugs (legal or illegal) or alcohol which could affect your ability to understand what is happening, the Court will move forward with the process of accepting your plea.
During the process of the plea hearing, the Court will ask you how you intend to plea. When accepting a plea agreement, you generally have two ways to plead. Those two ways are either guilty or no contest. They are both treated the same for purposes of establishing your guilt and the court issuing a sentence. However, a no contest plea can protect you from certain civil liabilities and a no contest plea is frequently used in cases where you may have damaged property of another or created a financial burden for another. Ask your Attorney for advice on which is the best option for you given the facts of your particular case.
When the Court is satisfied you understand your rights, are entering your plea knowingly and voluntarily, and you have told the court how you intend to plea, the Court will ask the Prosecutor to tell them what happened. The Prosecutor will then recite the evidence they believe they could prove at trial and they believe establishes the elements of the crime to which you are pleading. The Judge will frequently give your Attorney an opportunity to weigh in on the facts as well, especially if the case is complex or the factual scenario is at all confusing. If the Court believes the facts satisfy the elements of the charges to which you have pleaded, the court will move forward with finding you guilty of the charges.
Depending on the complexity of your case, the court will either move directly to sentencing or will set sentencing for a later date at a separate court hearing. If the court sets your case for a later sentencing date, they will also frequently order a pre-sentence investigation (PSI). The PSI is a document that is prepared by the probation department after you sit down for a meeting with them and they review the facts of your case, your past criminal record, your history of substance abuse, mental health needs, and many other relevant matters. The PSI is then submitted to the Court, the Prosecutor and your Attorney prior to sentencing. Sentencing then occurs after all parties have had an opportunity to review the PSI and make arguments to the Court about what your sentence should be.
As you can see, the process of entering a plea following successful plea negotiations by your Attorney, is one that has a lot of elements. You should seek the guidance of an experienced Attorney who understands the ins and outs of all of the court proceedings and the plea hearing in particular.
Miltenberger Law Offices is well versed in all portions of the criminal justice process. Please contact us to set up a consult on your criminal case.