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Plea Bargains: Unfair Legal Fictions Or Reasonable And Fair Resolutions? The Ohio Supreme Court Recently Weighs In

When someone is charged with a crime and hires a defense attorney, the person's case does not go straight to a trial where guilt or innocence is determined. Instead, the defense attorney will negotiate with the prosecutor at a pretrial hearing on behalf of the individual. These negotiations are attempts to get charges dismissed or at the very least, to get charges amended to offenses carrying less severe penalties.

The latter situation is known as a plea bargain. A prosecutor may agree to dismiss a charge against someone if he or she pleads guilty to a lesser offense. This scenario avoids the need to take the case to a trial, saving judicial resources and taxpayer dollars. Further, the prosecutor saves time and the defendant faces less serious consequences-a win-win situation. 

Some plea bargains, however, are not favored by everyone, including many Ohio judges and the Ohio Supreme Court Rules Commission who recently pushed for changes in the way plea bargains are handled throughout the state. One of the leading advocates for the proposed change was Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael P. Donnelly who characterized many plea bargains as "factually baseless pleas."

Donnelly and others submitted a formal proposal to the Ohio Supreme Court, recommending it now require felony charges in plea bargains to be based on the actual circumstances of the underlying crimes. Several states and the federal court system require this.

In supporting the proposal, Donnelly cited hundreds of cases where defendants charged with sex crimes plead to non-sex offenses that did not square with the facts. The plea bargains helped avoid the sex-offender registration requirements. An example of this would be a defendant pleading guilty to assault after being charged with gross sexual imposition.

In a recent 4-2 decision without comment, the Ohio Supreme Court justices voted to not adopt the proposal. This was the correct decision. It allows defendants in the state to continue entering into felony plea bargains, pleading guilty to crimes that do not reflect the accusations; criminal charges are simply accusations. This promotes judicial economy and preserves the win-win situation for the State and the criminal defendant. 

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