For many people, the prospect of fighting for their freedom in court can be overwhelming. Additionally, many people assume that the criminal justice system is rigged against them and that there is simply nothing they can do to avoid being convicted at trial. As a result, rather than fighting their criminal charges, many people resign themselves to pleading guilty—and taking whatever punishment the judge decides to impose.
This is a mistake—a big one. If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, you need to defend yourself. Even setting aside the prospect of incarceration and fines, a conviction can alter the course of your life, and many convictions are not eligible for expungement under Pennsylvania law.
7 Important Facts about Pleading Guilty in Pennsylvania
Before you decide how to respond to your criminal charges, you need to have a clear understanding of what is at risk in your case. You also need to assess your defenses, and you must determine whether an intermediate solution (such as negotiating a plea deal or entering into a diversion program) is your best option in light of the circumstances at hand.
So, before you decide to put your future in jeopardy, here are seven facts you need to know about pleading guilty in Pennsylvania:
Fact #1: The Burden of Proof is on the Government
While the odds may seem stacked against you, it is important to remember that the burden of proof is always on the government in criminal cases. Specifically, in order to secure a conviction, the prosecutor’s office must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the prosecution must convince the judge (or the jury, if you request a jury trial) that the only reasonable conclusion is that you committed the crime or crimes alleged.
This is a very high burden; and, if your defense attorney can successfully challenge even one element of the prosecution’s case, this will be enough to avoid a conviction. For example, in many cases, proving a defendant’s guilt requires evidence of “criminal intent,” and it will be possible to challenge the prosecution’s evidence of intent (or lack thereof) in many cases.
Fact #2: There are Defenses You Can Assert Even if You Committed a Crime
Let’s say you committed a criminal act, and you did so both knowingly and intentionally. In other words, there is no question that you violated the law. Even in this scenario, you could still have defenses available.
The U.S. Constitution affords criminal suspects and defendants in Pennsylvania numerous important protections. If police or prosecutors violated the Constitution (which happens far more often than most people would expect) in your case, you may be entitled to a “not guilty” verdict regardless of whether you committed a crime. Some of the most common examples of constitutional defenses to criminal charges include:
- Unreasonable search or seizure
- Use of surprise charges or evidence
- Violation of the protection against self-incrimination
- Violation of the right to legal representation
- Violation of the right to due process
Fact #3: If You are a First-Time Offender, You May Be Eligible for Diversion
If this is your first time facing criminal charges, you may be able to avoid a conviction by participating in one of Pennsylvania’s diversion programs. These programs allow first-time offenders to avoid having a criminal record while also avoiding the stress and risks of going to trial. When you enter into a diversion program, you are required to comply with several terms and conditions; however, if you comply, then your charge will be erased from your criminal record.
Fact #4: Negotiating a Plea Bargain Could Significantly Reduce Your Sentence
If you are committed a crime, you do not have constitutional defenses available, and you are not eligible for one of Pennsylvania’s diversion programs, then negotiating a plea bargain could provide a much more favorable outcome than simply pleading guilty in court. In Pennsylvania, the most common type of plea bargain is a “charge bargain.” This allows you to plead guilty to a lesser crime, thereby reducing the penalties that are on the table. A “sentence bargain” is an option as well, although these plea bargains are less common and subject to more legal restrictions.
Fact #5: Expungement After a Conviction is Not an Option in Most Cases
Many people assume that if they plead guilty, they will eventually be able to apply for an expungement and have their criminal record wiped clean. However, this is not an option in most cases. In Pennsylvania, expungements are generally only available in cases in which the defendant beats his or her charges—his or her arrest and charge records are subsequently wiped clean. If you are convicted, you will only be eligible for expungement if: (i) you were convicted of a “summary” (low-level) offense, and (ii) you avoid getting arrested for the next five years.
Fact #6: Many Crimes have Mandatory Minimum Sentences in Pennsylvania
Another common misconception is that pleading guilty will earn you favor with the judge. This is not the case, and many crimes in Pennsylvania have mandatory minimum sentences. If your charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge will sentence you to prison, and you will be left thinking about what might have been had you fought your charge successfully.
Fact #7: A Criminal Conviction Will Impact Virtually All Aspects of Your Life
Finally, even once you serve your sentence, your conviction will continue to impact virtually all aspects of your life. A criminal record is a substantial burden, and it can make it more difficult to do everything from find a job to secure custody or visitation rights with your children. If you are facing criminal charges, you have every reason to fight, and you should discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.
Discuss Your Case with Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Fishman for Free
Are you facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania? To learn more about how (and why) to fight your charges, schedule a free consultation with Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer Brian Fishman. We are available 24/7, so call 267-758-2228 or contact us online now.