Why Not to Accept a Plea Bargain

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Attorney, Jeffrey Hark

DEFENDANTS WHO ARE INNOCENT OR HAVE BEEN DENIED THEIR RIGHTS OF DUE PROCESS SHOULD REFRAIN FROM ACCEPTING PLEA BARGAINS

This article will discuss why it is rarely in your interest to plead guilty or accept a plea bargain in a criminal case if you are innocent of the crime you have been charged with or you believe your constitutional rights have been violated.

The case being discussed is:

Dayna Hinton, Albert Cass, Robert Henderson, Antwyne Rolax v. State of New Jersey, Department of the Treasury. 

View the entire case here.

On March 13, 2014, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division held that a defendant who has pled guilty to a crime and served all or any of their sentence is barred from recovery of damages under the Mistaken Imprisonment Act. The law bars anyone who by their own conduct has caused or brought about their own conviction, including defendants who accepted plea bargains, even when their convictions are vacated.

In 2010 five Camden police officers were charges with deprived hundreds of defendants of their constitutional rights when it was learned that they were planting drugs, lying on police reports, pressuring witnesses, and many other illegal acts.

When the ‘victim defendants’ cases were reviewed by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office many cases were voluntarily dismissed.  Numerous defendants sued under New Jersey’s Mistaken Imprisonment ACT, NJSA 52:4C-5 which allows individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes and have served prison time can seek damages from the state Department of the ONLY if they meet three requirements:

  • That he was convicted of a crime and subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment, served all or any part of his sentence; and
  • He did not commit the crime for which he was convicted; and
  • He did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.

Element (a) is straight forward and easy to understand as is Element (b). However is should be understood that if a conviction is vacated, regardless of whether the vacations results from new evidence or a procedural error, it as if the defendant did not commit the act for which he was convicted. More often than not, the court finds the trial court committed an error which results in a wrongful conviction, the county prosecutor’s office(s) in this state have been instructed to retry the defendants to seek justice (a) and (b) to avoid exposure under this act.

However, the highest hurdle defendants must overcome is the third prong of NJSA 52:4C-5 which is the crux of the case decided this week and the controversy lies.  The question simply is, Does pleading guilty to a crime one is innocent of qualifies as bringing about one’s own conviction, subsequently preventing a defendant from seeking damages for time served.

The answer is ‘yes.’

This third prong, according to thus court was incorporated into the statute to create a high threshold for defendants to meet in order to further limit any financial recover damages from any government agency. The Court held a guilty plea creates an admission that the defendant did bring about his own conviction regardless of the underlying factual or procedural circumstances.  The court outlined a strong precedential inclination towards discouraging plea bargains and declining any guilty plea from an innocent defendant. But the courts noted that it is impossible for them to prevent a defendant from perjuring himself by pleading guilty when he knows he is innocent or due process rights have been violated.

Therefore, when under the stress of being faced with criminal charges a plea bargain can seem attractive in order to avoid more serious consequences of jail time; especially for those with a criminal history that could serious enhance sentencing exposure.

However, giving into the temptation to plead guilty and accept a lesser sentence is always the wrong choice if wrong choice if your constitutional rights have been violated.

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