Georgia DUI: The Art of Plea Bargaining

A successful criminal defense attorney is one who explores and exhausts every possible avenue of defense to the benefit of their clients. If the best course of action is taking the case to trial, the successful attorney will be prepared to try the case. However, statistical evidence shows an overwhelming majority (90%-95%) of all criminal cases in the United States are resolved through a plea bargain.[1] The primary reason for defense counsel to negotiate a plea bargain is to obtain a better resolution for your client than that which may be obtained at trial. 

Clearly, plea bargaining, is a major facet of our criminal justice system. Therefore it is important to understand not only the practical aspects of plea bargaining a DUI case, but also the law that guides those practices. If plea bargaining is the best resolution of a defendant’s DUI case and plea bargaining should occur, this article serves as a guide to the plea bargaining process.  

A Plea Agreement is a Contract

It must be remembered that a plea agreement is a contract under Georgia law, which binds both prosecutor and defendant.[2] In addition, a defendant surrenders valuable constitutional rights when entering a guilty plea under a plea bargain.[3] Further, it must be known that a plea agreement may be approved or denied by the judge.

Generally, no binding contract exists and either party may withdraw their bid until each party has assented or agreed to all the terms of a proposed agreement. This remains true even when the offer states it will remain open for a specific time.[4] Remembering these plea agreements as contacts is vital to the plea bargaining process.

Pre-Trial Conferences

Typically, negotiations regarding a plea occur during a “pre-trial conference.” This process is also known as, “pre-trying” a case. These pre-trial conferences can occur anywhere from before arraignment and up to (and perhaps even during) trial. During these conferences defense counsel and the prosecutor discuss the evidence in the case, viability of defenses, and possible alternative resolutions to the case. As a practical matter, a judge will not schedule a formal pre-trial conference in a misdemeanor DUI case. To the extent a judge does become involved in a pre-trial conference, U.R.S.C. 7.3 governs the process.

Reasons to Negotiate

Although it seems unfair given a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial, most judges will impose a harsher sentence if a defendant opts for a jury trial and loses than if a defendant pleads guilty. The Uniform Court Rules allow for the judge to engage in this type of decision making. Rule 33.6 of the Uniform Rules provides:

  1. It is proper for the judge to grant charge and sentence leniency to defendants who enter pleas of guilty or nolo contendere when the interests of the public in the effective administration of criminal justice are thereby served. Among the considerations which are appropriate in determining this question are:
  2. that the defendant by entering a plea has aided in ensuring the prompt and certain application of correctional measures;
  3. that the defendant has acknowledged guilt and shown a willingness to assume responsibility for conduct;
  4. that the leniency will make possible alternative correctional measures which are better adapted to achieving rehabilitative, protective, deterrent or other purposes of correctional treatment, or will prevent undue harm to the defendant from the form of conviction;
  5. that the defendant has made public trial unnecessary when there are good reasons for not having the case dealt with in a public trial;
  6. that the defendant has given or offered cooperation when such cooperation has resulted or may result in the successful prosecution of other offenders engaged in equally serious or more serious criminal conduct;
  7. that the defendant by entering a plea has aided in avoiding delay (including delay due to crowded dockets) in the disposition of other cases and thereby has increased the probability of prompt and certain application of correctional
  8. The judge should not impose upon a defendant any sentence in excess of that which would be justified by any of the rehabilitative, protective, deterrent or other purposes of the criminal law merely because the defendant has chosen to require the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt at trial rather than to enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

Additional reasons to plea bargain include: avoiding a habitual violator status, to save a client’s driver’s license from administrative suspension, and if a DUI defendant is under 21 years of age.

What to Do Prior to a Plea

If a plea is inevitable, defense counsel should have client consider pursuing one or more of the following prior to entering a plea:

  1. Risk Reduction Program (Defensive Driving Class Offered Through DDS)
  2. Community Service
  3. Alcohol and Drug Evaluation
  4. Victim Impact Panel

The Plea Itself

A negotiated plea is where both the defense and prosecution reach an agreement as to the crimes to be admitted to by the defendant and the punishment the defendant is to be subjected to as a result of committing those crimes.  Not only is defense counsel prohibited from accepting a plea offer without authority from client, but defense counsel is also obligated to communicate every negotiated offer to client before rejecting it on client’s behalf.

If a judge refuses to honor the negotiated plea, the defendant may withdraw their plea. All plea bargains are subject to the court’s approval and can never act as more than recommendations to the court. If a judge does reject the plea, the court must inform the defendant: (1)The court is not bound by the plea agreement, (2) the court intends to reject the plea agreement, (3) the sentence or disposition may be less favorable to the defendant than the plea agreement, and (4) the defendant may then withdraw his guilty plea as a matter of right.

A defendant also has the option of entering a non-negotiated plea. This may be a useful tool if defendant wishes to enter a plea and avoid trial but does not agree with the State’s recommended sentence. In a non-negotiated plea, however, the right to withdraw a plea is not absolute and is a matter within the judge’s discretion.

If you or someone you know has been arrested for driving under the influence, contact the law firm of W. Scott Smith at 404.581.0999 today for a free case evaluation. You’ll find a local Atlanta DUI attorney ready to aggressively fight on your behalf. You can also find out more detailed information about Atlanta laws here.


Footnotes

[1] https://www.bja.gov/Publications/PleaBargainingResearchSummary.pdf

[2] Also referred to as a, “negotiated plea.”

[3] These include rights guaranteed under the Fifth and Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

[4] Usually this is because there is no “consideration” to keep the offer open.

Probation Revocation in Georgia

Understanding Probation and Revocation

Most sentences in criminal cases involve a period on probation. Probation, while timely and expensive, allows you to serve your sentence in the outside world and not behind bars. The downside of this is if your probation officer alleges you violated a term of probation, he or she can petition for a probation revocation, which can land you in jail for a period of time, even up to the full amount left on your sentence.

A Word on Probation 

             Probation can come with a myriad of requirements that you must adhere to in order to steer clear from trouble in the courts. For example, the judge may order you to complete classes, fines, or pay restitution while on probation. The judge will also likely require you to stay away from alcohol and drugs.Another important term of probation is that you not commit any new crimes while on probation. 

What happens when probation is revoked?

             If the probation officer believes you have violated a term of your probation, they will draft a petition for probation revocation and issue a warrant for your arrest. A hearing is later held where the person accused will have the opportunity to essentially admit to the allegation for the purpose of the hearing, or to deny what the probation officer is alleging and have a hearing.In a hearing with this much on the line, it is imperative to have an attorney represent your interests.

Am I going back to jail?

             A probation revocation does not necessarily mean you are going back to jail, although it certainly can end that way. An experienced criminal defense attorney can potentially negotiate other options that do not involve jail. An attorney can also have a contested hearing when the allegations within the petition are denied. The standard of proof is lower in probation revocation hearings than in criminal trials. In a trial, the judge or jury has to find beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. In a probation revocation, it is a preponderance of the evidence, which essentially means the judge has to find you ‘more likely than not’ violated your probation in the ways the officer is saying.

Find the right Attorney

             Having an attorney who is familiar with the playing field is key in these cases as it is imperative to be familiar with the judge, prosecutor, and probation officers involved. Having a pending probation revocation can be a frightening experience to go through, because of the time in jail that may be over your head going into it. A failed drug screen can land you in jail for months. Committing a new crime can land you back in jail for years. There is a lot on the line, but not all hope is lost. If you or a loved one is facing a probation revocation in Georgia, give us a call today at 404-581-0999 for a free consultation.

by Mary Agramonte

Probation Revocation and Parole

Can a judge revoke my probation when I have allegedly violated probation after being sentenced but I have not yet started my probation?  Can a judge revoke my probation where it goes non-report or suspended upon completion of doing an act (classes, drug screens or evaluation).

The question requires some explanation as to situations as to where this scenario may rear its ugly head.  Defendant is sentenced in one county to a sentence of 10 years to serve 2, balanced probated.  While client is in prison or on parole he commits a new crime; ie he gets charged with possession of drugs in prison.  Even though he has not started probation as he is under the department of corrections supervision he can still be revoked on the county level by the judge.  Here are a couple of additional scenarios where the judge has the ability to revoke probation even though you are not technically on probation:

Judge sentences you in Cobb County to probation to run Consecutive to your sentence in Paulding County.  You are currently serving time in Paulding County and have not yet started serving your probation in Cobb.  Nonetheless, you can be revoked in Paulding and Cobb for committing a new crime.

Similarly, where a judge suspends a sentence.  For example you get 5 year sentence suspended upon completion of an alcohol evaluation.  You violate your probation shortly after being placed on the suspended sentence – in this scenario you can be revoked for the five years less any time that has elapsed since your sentence started even if you have already completed the evaluation – where the court has not signed an order allowing suspension to commence.

OCGA 17-10-1 (a) provides: that the trial court has the power and authority to suspend or probate all or any part of the entire sentence under such rules and regulations as the judge deems proper, including the authority to revoke the  [*630]  suspension or probation when the defendant has violated any of the rules and regulations prescribed by the court, even before the probationary period has beg

un.

Here are the reasons the court of appeals found persuasive on why  you can still be revoked even though you are not technically on reporting probation:

While probation may be considered a mild form of ambulatory punishment imposing meaningful restraints, its true nature is an act of judicial grace. The Legislature has granted to the judiciary discretionary power to grant probation as a means of testing a convicted defendant’s integrity and future good behavior. Unlike parole, granted by an administrative agency, probation is granted by the court when the sentencing judge deems the protection of society does not demand immediate incarceration. In cases where a convicted defendant’s “future good behavior” has already been compromised by the commission of another criminal act even before the formal probationary period begins, a trial court should not be required to allow such  defendant to serve a previously imposed probated sentence when the court deems the protection of society demands revocation.

by Scott Smith

 

First Offender Sentencing in Georgia

First offender treatment is available in Georgia for anyone who has not been previously convicted of a felony and is not charged with a serious violent felony. Serious violent felonies are murder, felony murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, and aggravated sexual battery. Anyone charged with one of those offenses is automatically ineligible for first offender unless the charge is reduced to a lesser offense.

If a defendant receives first offender treatment, it can be both a blessing and a curse. If there are no issues during the period of probation, then no official conviction will ever be reported and the record itself will seal from public view. However, if the defendant commits a new offense while on probation or has any issues at all, then the judge has discretion to revoke the first offender status and re-sentence the defendant up the maximum sentence allowed by law.

While serving the sentence which will undoubtedly involve a period of probation, the defendant is not technically convicted of a crime but still cannot possess a firearm. After successful completion, all gun rights are restored.

Finally, first offender status can be granted retroactively if the defendant was eligible for first offender treatment at the time of the original plea but was not informed of his or her eligibility. Still, there is discretion, and the judge must find by a preponderance of the evidence that the ends of justice and the welfare of society are served by granting retroactive first offender status.

If you are charged with a crime in Georgia, then you should always consult with an attorney as to whether you are a candidate for first offender treatment. If you have already pled guilty, then you should still reach out to discuss whether you can receive retroactive first offender treatment. Give us a call today at 404-581-0999.

Aggressive Driving Attorneys in Georgia

by Mary Agramonte

Georgia uses a point system to categorize different types of traffic tickets. Traffic offenses range from 1 point all the way up to 6 points. 6 point offenses are considered the most serious, have the harshest penalties, and are the most likely to land you in jail facing high fines and even a suspended license.

Georgia treats the offense of Aggressive Driving as a 6 point offense, meaning it is considered a very serious offense in Georgia courts. Under Georgia law, a person commits the offense of Aggressive Driving when he or she operates any motor vehicle with the intent to annoy, harass, intimidate, injure, or obstruct another person. For example, if you are overtaking and passing someone with that intent, then you can be charged with Aggressive Driving. Similarly, if you are “tailgating” someone by following them very closely, then you can be charged with Aggressive Driving. In Georgia, you can be cited or arrested for Aggressive Driving if an officer observes you commit an act of road rage or if someone on the road calls 911 to report it.

Aggressive Driving has harsh penalties, and because of that you need the best Aggressive Driving Attorneys in Atlanta on your side fighting for you and your freedom. Aggressive Driving is considered a High and Aggravated Misdemeanor. This means that the maximum penalty can be a $5,000 fine (which ends up being much higher with the additional court costs and fees), and can land you in jail for up to 12 months. This is all in addition to the 6 points it will add to your driver’s license , which is then reported to your car insurance company, which can result in significantly higher premiums.

If you are under 21, an Aggressive Driving conviction will automatically suspend your license. Even if you are over 21 years old, the Aggressive Driving charge can still suspend your license depending on how many other tickets you have had in the past two years. Additionally, if you are arrested on scene for Aggressive Driving, then this will appear on your criminal history forever, unless the case is won with the help of knowledgeable Atlanta criminal defense attorneys.

Get the legal help you need. There are defenses available to those charged with Aggressive Driving in Georgia, but you need experienced criminal defense attorneys on your side to protect your freedom, your wallet, and your future. Call us today for a FREE CONSULTATION at 404-581-0999.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences in Federal Court

by John Lovell

If you’ve been charged with a federal crime in the state of Georgia, many federal crimes require a “mandatory minimum” sentence. Mandatory minimum sentences reflect a “one-size-fits-all” form of justice. It is the legislative and executive branches of the government imposing arbitrary sentences without information pertaining to the person convicted or the specifics of the crime. Mandatory minimum sentences strip the judge hearing the case from deciding what is a just and fair sentence.* Mandatory minimum sentences range from 2 years to life without parole. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has compiled a list of crimes and mandatory minimums. These mandatory minimum sentences are not just unique to federal crimes in Georgia, but are mandatory all across the country.

There are some ways to avoid mandatory minimum sentences. First and foremost, don’t commit a crime that exposes you to man mins! Obvious, right? If you are charged, seek an attorney who is familiar with federal law. I have seen many an attorney counsel a client to plea guilty, unaware of the mandatory minimum sentence. I have seen this where a life sentence was imposed. There are few circumstances where a person would voluntarily agree to be sentenced to life in prison, particularly for a drug offense.

Also, it may be possible to negotiate a plea to a charge that does not require a mandatory minimum sentence.

Finally, learn whether an exception applies that allows the judge to NOT impose a mandatory minimum sentence. Next month I’ll write about the most common exception under federal law, the “safety valve.”

*One of many examples: I had the privilege of representing a young man on appeal who received a mandatory life sentence for delivering drugs. There was no dispute but that he was a “mule.” I did not represent him at trial but read the transcript of the sentencing hearing where the conservative, George W. Bush appointed judge, described the mandatory sentence as “savage, cruel and unusual.” I filed a federal habeas motion and was able to get the young man’s sentence reduced to a term of years where he will, in the coming years, be free and not lose his life to a mandatory minimum sentence.