Rejected Plea Bargains as Evidence

So, a guy gets charged with (for instance) first degree murder. He agrees with the prosecutor to plead guilty to a lesser charge of (for instance) second degree murder in exchange for a slap on the wrist. In order to make this deal, it is my understanding he has to agree he is actually guilty. This is presented to a judge, who then rejects the deal.

Can the prosecutor then turn around and use the fact he was willing to admit to second degree murder in the trial? Why not?

IANAL but I’m almost certain the answer is “Absolutely not”, for criminal proceedings at least (non-criminal trials (e.g. speeding tickets) have a lower bar of proof).

That information (which could theoretically have a perfectly innocent explanation) will unfairly prejudice the jury. The standard of guilt in America* is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. “I’m innocent but accepted the deal because I don’t want the hassle of a trial” is a rather reasonable doubt (businesses settle out-of-court all the time without admitting guilt).

  • and most other modern countries too, I believe.

My thought was the defense could use it as evidence, by saying, “Look – they offered me a deal because they don’t think they can prove their case in an actual trial.” But that’s probably not true, either.

That would certainly chill future attempts at negotiating a plea in a criminal case. I doubt it’s admissible.

No, it wouldn’t be admissible because it blatantly unfairly prejudices the jury and isn’t based on observed facts or testimony; the defendant doesn’t actually make a statement that he’s guilty until the plea bargain has been accepted.

Normally when lawyers are attempting to resolve a matter, civil or criminal, all of their discussions are conducted on a “Without Prejudice” basis. That means that they agree that their exchanges of correspondence, oral discussions, and so on cannot be introduced by either side in court if the negotiations are unsuccessful.

Rejection of plea deals is not something that occurs very often. The judge is there to make sure that law is followed accordingly. If the state has reached an agreement with the defendant that the state feels is in the best interest of the people, the judge should only reject it if he felt that the law was not being followed.

Federal Rules of Evidence (410) makes such statements inadmissible. I’m not aware of any state that lacks a similar guarantee.

There are a couple of exceptions: it’s admissible at a subsequent prosecution for perjury if the original statement was made under oath and it’s admissible if any other statement from that same plea negotiation was introduced and justice requires that the two be considered together.

That is, the accused can’t blurt out at trial that he refused to plead guilty even to manslaughter, if the truth is that he “refused” because he was offering to plead to second degree murder. If he makes the first claim the prosecution can introduce the second to rebut him.

I must be missing something - if someone pleads guilty to a lesser charge, there wouldn’t be a trial anymore, would there?

Yes, there would not be a trial. That is, if the judge accepts the plea agreement. But the judge can reject the plea agreement, even if the prosecution and defendant agree to it. It’s not common but it happens.

So the defendant agreed to plead guilty to a certain crime, the prosecution agreed, but the judge says this stinks and rips up the agreement. Then instead of trying to come up with another plea agreement, or dropping the case, the prosecution decides to go to trial.

That’s somewhat, but not quite for one major reason, what happened with the case of Tom Hayes in London.

He was under investigation by both the US and the UK for manipulating Libor while he as a trader at UBS and Citigroup.

He agreed to plead guilty in the UK and be sentenced to a year or two in jail - in large part because he was terrified of being extradited to the US and, as I understand it, conviction in the UK would prevent his being extradited to face similar charges in the US.

So, he spends months walking the UK investigators through his trades so that they could go after other traders.

At the very end of the process he changes his mind and refuses the plea deal. The trial goes ahead and…

he’s quickly convicted on all counts and is sentenced to 14 years in jail - thanks in a large part to the prosecution being able to use ALL the info he provided to them against him.

So, it was the defendant, not the judge, rejecting the plea deal, but IIRC, the prosecution would have been able to reject the plea deal and use any of the info against him if the felt he wasn’t 100 percent forthright or if he refused to testify against fellow traders.

ps, the above info is from reading

The plea has to be approved by a judge. Normally this is just a technical step, but if the Judge finds that the plea is contrary to law, public policy, or human decency (depending on state laws and precedent) then he can reject the plea and force the case to go to trial. It’s extremely rare for this to happen, though.

That would be called “bad faith” and that prosecutor would never ever get another defense attorney to hammer out a plea deal ever again. There are politics involved in such things. From traffic offenses all the way to murder if every single defendant went through to a full trial the system would collapse.

As a procedural matter, when does the defendant formally submit his guilty plea? If it’s done as a final step after the judge has approved the plea bargain, then there wouldn’t be any guilty plea to enter as evidence if the judge doesn’t approve the deal.

A related question. Suppose a person is accused of murder. The case against him is very strong and he doesn’t have a good defense. He’s offered a plea bargain, which he accepts. As a condition of the plea bargain, he has to plead guilty to the lesser charge he’s convicted of.

But then an amazing event occurs. Some totally unexpected evidence is discovered. This evidence proves, beyond any possible doubt, that the defendant was innocent. The defendant’s conviction if overturned and the real criminal is convicted.

The defendant is questioned about why he plead guilty when he was innocent. He explains he knew he was innocent but also knew he had no evidence at the time to prove it. If he had gone to trial he would have been found guilty. So he made the best he could of the situation and plead guilty to the lesser charge even though he was innocent.

The prosecutor, however, is very unhappy. This incident has made him look terrible. So he plots his revenge. The defendant is innocent of the original charges. But, by his own admission, he falsely plead guilty under oath to a charge he knew he was not guilty of. So the prosecutor brings perjury charges against the defendant.

Putting aside the unlikelihood of this happening, is this scenario legally possible? Can a person be held guilty of perjury for making a false guilty plea?

(As should be obvious, I’m having a really hard time coming up with a third act for my movie script.)

YMMV depending on location. But what happens around here is during what is called a “status conference” both sides advise the judge that a plea deal is in the making. Then there is a separate date called a “plea hearing”. In that hearing the judge is advised what the defendant is willing to plea to (the charge, terms of sentence recommendation, etc). The judge can accept or deny this deal.

So you’re right, in a rejected deal the defendant wouldn’t actually be pleading to anything. But I’m assuming that the OP meant that the DA would still use the defendants willingness to plead as evidence of guilt. A ploy, if even allowable, would be the end of the DA’s career.

BTW, I am not an attorney, this is not legal advice, yadda yadda yadda.

I think there is some confusion here.

Most of us learned the law from the TV legal documentary series “Law & Order.” In this series, when the defense and the prosecution reached a plea agreement, they went before the judge and the defendant had to stand in court and “allocute.” In this allocution, the defendant would have to give details of when, where, and how he committed the crime. If his allocution was not good enough for the prosecutor, the prosecutor could ask more questions. Once the prosecution was satisfied, they would tell the judge they accept the plea deal. THEN the judge would rule on whether he accepted the plea deal.

I think the question is, if the prosecution is not satisfied with the allocution or the judge rejects the plea deal after the allocution, can the allocution be used against the defendant later?

If not by the prosecutor in the case, could it be used by federal prosecutors or by prosecutors in another state? Could it be used in a civil trial?

Look up “Alford plea.” Also “nolo contendere.”

I’m familiar with those. That’s why I specified that the defendant plead guilty in my scenario.

In actuality nolo contendere is how people plead guilty in Latin. I say that because in 35 years in the criminal justice system I’ve never heard of someone pleading that and being found not guilty.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Alford” pleas be rejected by judges. They don’t like it. It’s also, IIRC, not acceptable in military trials.