Can a Judge Overrule a Plea Agreement in Arizona?


Reaching a plea agreement with the prosecutor is a great way to reduce charges and minimize legal punishment, but nothing is set in stone until the judge approves your agreement. A judge always has the authority to overrule a plea agreement, and in some jurisdictions the judge can even break from the prosecutor’s recommended sentence included in the plea agreement. As such, it’s critical you understand all of the implications and contingencies involved with plea agreements before you sign on the dotted line.

What is a Plea Agreement?

A plea agreement (or plea bargain) occurs when the prosecutor reaches a deal with the defendant for a mutually acceptable resolution to a criminal case. Plea agreements form a contract that allows a defendant to receive reduced punishment and avoid the risks and stresses of going trial, in return for guaranteeing the result of the case and avoiding wasting time and resources for the prosecutor. 

Generally speaking, there are four types of plea bargains:

  • Charge Bargaining – pleading to a less serious crime than the original or maximum charge. For example, pleading guilty to trespassing in exchange for dropping burglary charges.
  • Count Bargaining – a form of charge bargaining, count bargaining applies when the prosecutor agrees to drop repeat or associated charges in exchange for a guilty plea on the first charge. For example, a defendant charged with assault and battery could plead guilty to assault in exchange for the prosecutor dropping the battery charges.
  • Sentence Bargaining – the defendant agrees to plead guilty or “no contest” in exchange for a recommended sentence. For example, a defendant may agree to plead guilty in exchange for dropping jail time in favor of fines and community service.
  • Fact Bargaining – when the prosecutor agrees to alter the facts of a case, resulting in a less serious charge or sentence. For example, a defendant who was caught by police with $5,000 in stolen goods could be charged with a class 2 felony. In exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecutor could stipulate that the defendant was caught in possession of $3,500 in stolen goods, downgrading the theft charge to a class 3 felony. 

Plea agreements are typically negotiated by a criminal defense attorney on his or her behalf, as it takes a great deal of legal knowledge and experience to successfully negotiate for the best terms. It’s inadvisable for a defendant to negotiate directly with a prosecutor or police, especially when the other side isn’t willing to put their offer in writing.

Presenting Your Plea Agreement to the Judge

When the prosecution and defense teams reach a plea agreement, the prosecutor will present the proposed agreement to the judge for evaluation. In order to make an informed decision, the judge must understand all the terms of the proposed agreement, including any unusual clauses or future conditions. 

For example, when the prosecutor offers to drop the charges against a defendant in exchange for their testimony against another criminal, the deal must clearly state that the offer is contingent upon the defendant’s cooperation. Similarly, any unique stipulation on the sentencing — such as performing community service on weekends or giving the defendant a period of time to get their affairs in order before incarceration — must be listed in the agreement.

Evaluating Your Plea Agreement

In determining whether to accept or reject your plea agreement, the will consider a number of factors, including:

  • Whether the ascribed punishment fits the nature of the charges
  • The factual basis for the plea (i.e. the underlying facts of the case)
  • The victim’s interests (though the judge is not bound by the victim’s opinion)
  • The interests of the general public

Based on the court’s assessment the judge may immediately accept or reject the terms of the agreement, or they may defer their decision until after the presentence report. The judge may also decide on a partially negotiated plea, choosing to accept the plea agreement on certain terms while rejecting the sentence. In some cases, the judge may even recommend that the defendant plead without a negotiated agreement, especially when the judge is inclined to deliver a lighter sentence than what the plea agreement calls for.

Should the judge choose to reject a plea deal, in part or in whole, the judge should provide a written explanation detailing the reasons for their rejection. This provides the prosecution and defense teams an opportunity to reach another plea agreement that complies with the judge’s stipulations.

What Happens After the Judge Accepts Your Plea Agreement?

After the judge accepts your plea agreement, the next step is to enter a plea in accordance with the agreement. In most cases, this seals the deal and finalizes your agreement with the prosecutor.

There are situations you may choose to renege on a plea agreement after the defendant enters a plea. The most common scenario would be one where the judge indicates he or she plans to impose a harsher sentence than recommended by the prosecutor in the plea agreement. Different jurisdictions have various rules regarding this practice, but in any case you have the right to withdraw your plea before the sentencing.

Unfortunately, withdrawing a guilty plea after the judge enters a conviction and sentence is extremely challenging. Appealing your sentence may be the best option, though you’d need to consult with your attorney to determine the best course of action. Some plea agreements include a clause that waives the right to appeal your sentence, which can seriously hamper your prospects even when the judge fails to follow the agreement’s sentencing recommendations.

What Happens If You Fail to Follow Through With Your Agreement?

In most cases, it’s safe to say that the prosecutor and judge will follow the plea agreement to the letter. This preserves the integrity of the process, and instills confidence in other cases going forward so that other defendants will trust their plea agreements. As such, the party most likely to crash a plea agreement is the defendant.

How could a defendant break their own plea agreement? By failing to uphold their end of the bargain.

If your plea agreement stipulates that you complete 100 hours of community service within one year, you need to do everything in your power to complete the community service in full and on time. Should you fail to fulfill your end of the agreement, your plea agreement will likely be overturned and you may find yourself back in court on the receiving end of a much harsher punishment.

Receive Help With a Plea Bargain in Arizona

A plea bargain may be the difference between you sitting in jail or returning to society as a free person. If you believe you have information that could be used in your defense case as leverage in a plea bargain, consult with a criminal defense attorney.

Call the JacksonWhite Criminal Law team at (480) 467-4370 to discuss your case today.

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