Deal or No Deal?

If you’ve ever crossed horns with the law before, you know that the courtroom scenario is all about negotiation.  Prosecutors will offer deals, defense attorneys will reject them, and the judges will sit back and arbitrate the tug-o’-war.  But in some courtrooms, things move more quickly – on the first appearance in court, before you’ve even hired or been appointed a defense attorney, the prosecutor might offer you a deal to close the case.  They call it “Early Case Resolution,” and it’s become particularly popular in Salt Lake County.  While it may seem well and good to get your case resolved at the first hearing, there’s one big question that’s usually left unanswered: how do you know if the deal you’re being offered is any good?  Getting the answer is a three step process: 1) understanding the incentives of the prosecutor, 2) knowing the maximum potential consequences of your charges, and 3) learning what you might gain from additional negotiation.

  1. The Incentives

                Like it or not, our world revolves around money.  Most people who’ve hired one before would probably agree that this rule is particularly true about defense attorneys, but prosecutors are just as interested in your money, and they’ve learned to be very efficient at getting it.   The fact is that the more quickly a prosecutor can close your case, the less time and money they have to invest in prosecuting it.  By getting you to accept an early deal, they might even make the state a profit off your fine.

                Well, what’s wrong with this?  After all, by closing the case quickly the prosecutor is not only saving the state money, but they’re saving you money, right?  You won’t have to appear in court again, and you won’t have to pay expensive attorney fees.  The trouble comes from the fact that you are accepting a first deal.  It’s about the equivalent of walking into an auto-dealer and accepting the salesman’s first offer.  You’ll get robbed for everything you’re worth.  Just like buying a car, the criminal justice system is a negotiation, and rule number 1 in any negotiation is to start high.  When you accept the prosecutor’s first offer, you could be setting yourself up to lose even more money in fines and treatment costs than you would have if you’d hired an attorney to negotiate for you.

                So how do you tell if the prosecutor’s first offer is unreasonable?  Obviously the best way is to talk to a defense attorney who’s fought cases like yours before, and who will know how a negotiated case will end.  But a step in the right direction is looking at what the law says is the most a court can fine you.

  1. The Maximum Potential Consequence

                Utah, like most other states, has legislation that defines how much you can be fined for any given crime.  The amount changes from charge to charge, with an Infraction being the lowest ($750.00 per charge), and a 1st Degree Felony the highest ($10,000.00 per charge).  That said, Utah courts have the power to charge you an additional fine in the form of court costs: up to 90% of the maximum fine (click here for an accurate fine calculator).  This means that for something as mundane as a parking violation, you could be fined up to $1,425.00 – consider that the next time you let the meter run out!

                Still, most Utahns probably haven’t gotten a traffic ticket for $1,400.00, and it’s a fair bet that the prosecutor isn’t going to ask for the absolute maximum fine when they make you their first offer.  After all, the prosecutor wants you to accept the deal without question, and if the fine is too high, it just might make you think twice about it.  But that doesn’t mean that the first offer is going to be reasonable or even average for a case like yours.  You have to remember that there are almost always going to be collateral costs to any deal you make.  Things like license suspension, fees for treatment classes, drug testing costs and probation – you could be setting yourself up for thousands of extra dollars in costs by taking the wrong deal, possibly even more than it would have cost you to hire an attorney to fight your case out.

                Ok, so then how do you know if a private defense attorney will actually be able to get you a better deal than the prosecutor’s first offer?  The answer is pretty obvious – you ask one.

  1. Advantages of Additional Negotiation

                Probably the best thing you can do with the prosecutor’s initial offer is use it to figure out what you can expect if you decide to hire a private attorney to keep the negotiations going.  You could ask an acquaintance who’s gone through a similar case and see what they got after hiring a lawyer, but the best option is to take the deal directly to a defense attorney.

An experienced defense attorney will probably have seen many cases like yours and will be able to give you some idea of just how reasonable the initial offer actually is.  The defense attorney will be able to identify any aspects of the offer that they believe can be done away with and tell you what, if anything, can be gained from fighting the case out.  Best of all, you can get all of this information free of charge – most attorneys offer free consultations, and getting their reaction to the prosecutor’s initial offer is a good way to gauge their experience.

                Figuring out whether or not a prosecutor’s first offer is actually the right offer is easy, and it can cost you very little.  Take the time to do a little research and make a few phone calls.  Speak to several different criminal defense attorneys and ask them how they’ve seen cases like yours get resolved, and what you can expect by hiring them.  If you find that the prosecutor’s offer is actually reasonable, then there’s been no harm done.  On the other hand, you might find that the prosecutor is taking advantage of your lack of legal experience, and if that’s the case, hiring an attorney is the obvious way to go.

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