In Arizona, criminal defendants have no constitutional right to a plea agreement. The state does not have to offer one and can discontinue plea negotiations at will. If the state does offer one, it can take it off the table anytime before the court accepts it.
That puts a lot of criminal defendants in a very difficult situation. Many defendants have no desire to go to trial. Some want to avoid trial at all costs. A big problem arises when a client doesn’t want to go to trial, has a weak case and a lot of risk, and feels they have a right to a plea they’re willing to accept.
The problem is sentencing. Some Arizona crimes carry extreme sentences. If the state is alleging you committed a “dangerous offense” or have a prior conviction or two, you are probably looking at years of mandatory prison if convicted. The state’s offer will likely reflect your exposure should you lose at trial more than it reflects the actual seriousness of the alleged crime.
Let’s say the victim claims you swerved in his direction with your car, scaring him. You didn’t even hit him, but he thought he was going to die. You claim you were driving fine and he was drunk and stumbled in front of your car. It’s your word against his, and the authorities decided to believe him. You’re probably going to be charged with aggravated assault, and the state is probably going to allege it’s a dangerous crime because you used a car, a dangerous instrument, to intentionally place him in eminent fear of serious physical injury.
If you lose at trial, the judge can give you no less than five years of prison. The presumptive sentence is seven and a half years, and the judge could send you away for as long as fifteen years. Probation isn’t available. That’s what you’d be facing if you have no criminal history whatsoever.
The jury isn’t going to know how much time you’re facing. If they did know, your chances at trial would be a lot better. They’re probably going to hear the facts and think it’s no big deal. You’ll just get a slap on the wrist. They’ll have no clue what they’re doing to you by finding you guilty.
A jury might convict you. You may appear nervous on the stand. The victim may present really well. There is always risk at trial. There is no such thing as a guaranteed winner (or a guaranteed loser, for that matter).
I’ve seen a few cases with facts like what I’ve described, and the initial plea offer is typically going to stipulate to prison. The prosecutor sees a range of five to fifteen and decides anything less than five years is a good deal. The prosecutor probably thinks the charge is way too serious for a probation deal.
If the deal doesn’t change, what do you do? The state doesn’t have to give you a reasonable offer. You have no right to an offer at all. Sometimes, prosecutors won’t listen to reason. You may have to choose between a 50% chance of a lot of prison or a 100% chance of a little bit of prison.
That’s one of the worst situations defendants regularly encounter. Plenty of defendants fire their lawyers hoping a new face will get them a better deal. That rarely works. Typically, they just go to trial with a lawyer who’s less familiar with the case.
Absurd sentencing laws lead to absurd plea agreements. It seems obvious that every defendant can take a plea or go to trial, but mandatory minimums make that a tough reality to accept.