97% of federal criminal cases and a similar number of state cases are resolved via a plea bargain. In Minnesota, it’s estimated that 90% of criminal cases are resolved via a plea bargain agreement. This means that the vast majority of criminal cases are not decided by a judge or jury.
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Pleading Guilty, Nolo Contendere, or Entering an Alford Plea
Prior to plea bargaining a case in Minnesota, prosecutor’s require the defendant to enter either a guilty plea admitting their responsibility for the crime they’re being charged with, or a plea of nolo contendere which means they neither admit or deny their responsibility, but will accept the prosecutor’s recommendation for punishment associated with the crime.
In some cases, defendants may enter an Alford plea which asserts their innocence of guilt, but acknowledges that if the evidence were put before a judge or jury that they would likely be convicted of the crime.
Plea Bargains Can Reduce Punishments
Prosecutors will often drop the most serious charges against a defendant in return for a guilty plea on lesser charges. In the majority of cases, the prosecutor will agree to a specific punishment as part of the deal. These punishments may include a reduced period of incarceration, fines, probation, and restitution. These agreements can reduce the disruption to the defendant’s life and allow them to begin taking positive steps forward.
Judges are Not Bound by Plea Agreements
Judges in Minnesota do not have to accept a plea agreement reached between the prosecution and a defendant’s criminal defense lawyer. However, over the past few years, the courts have demonstrated a strong propensity for accepting plea bargains in many felony cases. However, they are less likely to accept plea agreements in cases that involve the sale or trafficking of dangerous narcotics such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The same is true for violent crimes involving the use of a deadly weapon and crimes involving the sale or possession of child pornography.
Mandatory Minimums and Plea Bargains
Recent indications from the Department of Justice show that the federal government will push judges throughout Minnesota to enforce mandatory minimum sentences on many low-level felony convictions. Over the past decade, judges in Minnesota have demonstrated an observable unwillingness to do this. This is unlikely to change and individuals who reach a plea agreement with the prosecuting attorney are likely to have their plea agreement accepted by the court.