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The Florida Bar

When a Judge Doesn’t Accept a Negotiated Plea Offer

Although it doesn’t happen very often, there are times that the presiding judge will refuse to accept a negotiation and resolution to a criminal charge. Recently, I was in the Broward County felony courtroom where, despite the best efforts of both the prosecutor and defense attorney, the court adamantly refused to accept a guilty plea by the defendant. Keep in mind that both the assistant state attorney and lawyer defending the accused were in absolute agreement as to the sentence in exchange for the plea. Why then would a presiding judge refuse an admission of guilt?

The Criminal Court Judge Considered the Agreed Sentence to Be Too Lenient

This case happened to be in a specially assigned domestic violence courtroom and (as is so common in domestic violence cases) the named victim repeatedly expressed a desire to waive prosecution. In fact, the assigned prosecutor stated on the record that the state’s victim “wanted nothing to do with the case.” This was one of many reasons given to the court by the litigators for both sides as to why a probationary sentence was appropriate.

Options Under These Circumstances

It may not make sense as to how Florida criminal law would provide a Circuit court judge with the authority to refuse a sentence agreed to by the Broward County State Attorney’s office, when in fact, they were the attorneys who filed the action in the first place. It would seem that since the prosecutors charged with enforcing our criminal laws it would also be able to dictate what they believe is an appropriate sentence.

Limitations on a Prosecutor to Choose an Appropriate Sentence for Their Own Case

While the State Attorney’s Office enjoys great latitude with regard to the prosecution of crimes alleged to have been committed in Broward County, there are times where the only option to have the court accept a lenient plea is to either down file (for instance from a felony to a misdemeanor). In this circumstance, the court would lack any authority to assume the role of prosecution. This creates significant problems in most cases where the court refuses to accept the plea in that a breakdown or dismissal of criminal charges by the state is quite a drastic measure. In other words, while it may be common for a prosecutor to offer a lenient sentence in exchange for a plea, it is far less common for prosecutor to agree to simply drop charges.

Cases that are considered weak from a prosecution standpoint are nonetheless still criminal actions that have been brought about based on evidence collected by police officers and detectives. The fact that some of that evidence becomes inadmissible or that the victim doesn’t want to testify does not mean that a prosecutor will forgo the action entirely when they at a minimum have just enough required to proceed.

The fact is that sometimes a criminal defense attorney negotiates a deal with the prosecutor that is simply “too good.”

Seasoned criminal defense attorneys will recognize this before the negotiations are brought to the presiding judge for resolution so that it may be presented in such a way that increases the likelihood of acceptance by the court. Equally as important is that lawyers having fully prepared his client as to the fact that an agreed resolution with the state still must pass scrutiny with the judge.

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