Can a Judge Reject a Plea Bargain? 6 Reasons

A plea bargain is when a defendant and their lawyer use information to come to an agreement with both parties that in exchange for jail time, a strike on the record, or some other aspect of conviction, the defendant agrees to pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.

But can a judge overrule a plea agreement?

How often do judges reject plea bargains?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2003 there were 75,573 cases in federal district courts of which 95% used a guilty plea bargain. Even today the Bureau of Justice statistics estimates that between 90 and 95% of federal and state court cases are resolved using a plea bargain.

Judges can choose to accept an agreement as it is, reject it outright, or in some states accept only certain aspects of it.

When a judge accepts only some aspects of the plea deal it is called a partially negotiated plea. Where judges feel they lack adequate information to make a decision they might postpone accepting or rejecting the plea deal until they have a pre-sentencing report. 

How judges accept and reject plea deals

When judges review the plea deal they have the opportunity to reject it. A judge can reject a plea deal before it has been finalized based on different circumstances.

Some jurisdictions give defendants an opportunity to withdraw a guilty plea if the judge does not accept the sentencing recommendation.

1. Best interests of the victim(s)

The first reason a judge can reject a plea deal is if they decide the deal is not in the best interest of the victim or the victim’s family. This is not a requirement by law but there are cases where the victim’s family makes it clear that they do not agree with the terms of the plea deal, in cases where people believe the charges are so severe that the individual should not be given a lesser sentence. Judges can choose to take this into account and reject a plea deal.

2. Best interet of the defendant

In rare cases a judge might review the information and be sympathetic to the defendant, believing that they have adequate information for a strong enough defense. If this is the case, the judge might reject the plea deal and suggest that the defendant avoid negotiating an agreement and instead try to achieve a lighter sentence going to court. 

3. Criminal record

When a judge evaluates a potential plea deal they look at any prior criminal record for the defendant. If the defendant has never been charged with a crime or convicted of a crime, it’s more likely that the judge will accept the plea deal. These are situations where the judge might see that the individual made a mistake but they are otherwise a law-abiding citizen and therefore can repay their debt to society more successfully by undergoing treatment programs for rehabilitation, educational programs, or serving community service hours.

Similarly if the individual has a lengthy criminal record the judge may be much less likely to accept a plea deal. Judges typically viewed defendants who have a history of lawbreaking as deserving of their sentence because of their repeated demonstrations that they are unable to follow the law.

4. The Crime

The type of crime committed will play a factor in whether a judge will accept or reject a plea deal. The decisions will vary by state. States that have laws criminalizing marijuana versus states that allow a minimal use of marijuana with a proper licensing might have very different rules on whether possession of a small amount of marijuana is a serious crime.

Judges will review the nature of the crime or crimes to determine if the charges somewhat match the crime itself. 

  • If police were called to the scene for a domestic disturbance but no serious injuries were sustained and it was the first time, advice from the prosecution that the plea deal include treatment for alcohol abuse as well as anger management classes might be viewed as a more constructive form of punishment.
  • If police are called to the scene for the same type of domestic disturbance where serious injuries were sustained in this was the fourth or fifth time for the same individual, the judge can rule that offering the lighter sentence is unacceptable given the nature of the crime.

5. The community

Judges will also review whether the lighter sentence is best for the community at large. If an individual, for example, has a history of violent behavior, judges are more likely to reject the plea deal because of the potential risk it poses to the community. 

6. A violation of the plea agreement

The fifth reason a judge can reject a plea bargain is the only reason that can take place after a plea bargain has been originally agreed upon and this is a situation where there are specific terms that have to be met and failure to do so is clearly explained as a violation and legal cancellation of the plea agreement.

Can judge overrule plea bargain decisions?

Once a plea bargain has been made and agreed upon by all parties involved including the judge, the judge cannot go back and overrule plea bargain decisions for no reason or because they changed their mind.

When can a judge overrule a plea agreement?

The only exception to this is if during the course of plea bargaining, the defendant and the prosecutor made a deal with the courts that one aspect of the deal would be the completion of certain terms or adherence to certain terms.

In the event that these terms are not met or some aspect of the agreed-upon bargain was violated as laid out by the terms, the judge can withdraw the plea bargain. 

For example: The state Code of Virginia, Section § 18.2-251 offers first time offenders what is called the First Offender Program. The purpose of this program is to give first-time offenders for minor crimes the opportunity to avoid going to jail and instead be placed on probation, attend educational programs, complete community service hours, and if necessary undergo substance abuse treatment. 

  • Individuals applying for this program have to be evaluated and if it is agreed upon, the terms dictate that those in the program have to remain drug and alcohol free for the duration of their probation, and to verify this they have to undergo regular drug tests.
  • They also have to complete community service requirements and attend all treatment or educational programs.

Failure to do so means the local judge can change the plea bargain and in most cases will immediately convict the person of the crime for which they were originally charged. 

How judge change a plea bargain?

In this case the judge can change the plea bargain because aspects of the original terms were violated and therefore, since the defendant didn’t keep up their end of the agreement, the criminal justice system and charge them with the conviction.

Final Thoughts

Consider seeking advice for your rights when it comes to a defense of a plea deal or a contest plea with a qualified attorney. In order to better understand the plea bargain procedure or determine whether a judge might actually reject your plea bargain, a criminal defense attorney can review the rules and customs based on your state.

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