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Negotiating Plea Bargains: How It Affects Military Personnel

Plea bargains and plea agreements have been used in the United States Army to alleviate overcrowded dockets. The idea behind these agreements is to allow military defendants to plead guilty to certain charges in exchange for a lighter sentence. The discretion to implement the plea bargaining process was given to various court martial authorities who had to follow a formal process tailored to the military justice system. Pretrial agreements have now become a common practice in the military legal system. In fact, negotiated pleas are now as prevalent in military cases as they are in civilian criminal jurisdictions. However, there is much more to know about these plea bargains and what they can mean for military personnel. If you need further information about these deals or want to review your legal options, consider contacting a lawyer from Driving Defense Law by calling (757) 929-0335.

How Do Plea Bargains Work With Military Personnel?

According to the United States Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, a plea agreement is a contract between a convening authority and an accused individual. In this agreement, the individual being charged decides to plead guilty in exchange for the authority’s promise to approve a particular punishment. The following promises may be made in a plea bargain:

  • An exchange of an admission of guilt for a reduction in the sentence imposed 
  • An exchange of an admission of guilt for a specific maximum sentence 
  • A discharge in lieu of court-martial
  • Getting rid of certain charges or not referring to any of the other charges
  • Referring the issues to a special court-martial, which may result in a less severe sentence
  • Referring a possible capital case as a non-capital case

A military plea bargain can also include trading an admission of guilt for an offense that is punishable by a dishonorable discharge imposed by the military court. However, in return, the accused will receive the assurance that he or she will not go to trial but instead be administratively discharged. While this agreement can be entered at any point before the court-martial findings are announced, the accused needs to accept the provisions freely and comprehend the outcome. The deal also cannot deprive the accused of the ability to obtain an attorney and have a fair trial. Furthermore, the plea agreement will only become binding in the military if it is approved by a judge. 

Are There Limitations to Plea Bargains?

Although plea bargains in the military are relatively standard, military judges will not accept every agreement presented to them. In most instances, they will not approve a pretrial agreement if:

  • There is a provision in the agreement that both sides have not agreed to
  • There is a provision in the agreement that the individual being charged does not comprehend
  • The punishment in the agreement is below the required minimum as outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and no exception applies. The UCMJ is enacted by Congress and contains procedural and substantive laws governing the military legal system
  • The agreement contradicts a rule that dictates the conditions, terms, or other parts of the plea bargain 
  • The plea agreement is against the law

If you want to understand more about what these limitations can mean for a plea bargain or how they can personally impact your case, consider discussing your questions with an experienced Virginia defense attorney at Driving Defense Law. 

The Differences Between a Civilian Plea Bargain and a Military Plea Bargain

Although a civilian plea bargain and a military plea bargain are very similar, there are numerous differences between the two processes, such as the following:

  • Military judges cannot participate in conversations regarding the conditions or terms of the plea bargain. In comparison, judges handling civilian plea bargains can join in the process. 
  • A civilian trial judge will split control to make sure that the individual being charged accepts a fair agreement. That is why the trial judge will work with other courts to make sure there is compliance with the laws and fundamental fairness.
  • Military judges will inquire about the accused’s guilty plea before approving a pretrial agreement. This specific procedure, referred to as a providence inquiry, will occur when the other members of the court are not present. 
  • The prosecution and defense in civilian cases are typically more adversarial in nature than those involved in military plea bargains. This is due to the military’s hierarchical structure and the fact that both sides are working within the same system. 

In addition, the consequences of violating military plea bargains are often harsher than those in civilian court. Military plea bargains are considered binding agreements. If the accused violates the terms, serious repercussions can follow, such as a nullification of the plea deal and potentially more severe charges. Overall, while there are similarities between civilian and military plea bargains, the differences in process and consequences make it important for those facing charges in either setting to fully understand the specific procedures and implications of entering into a plea bargain.

The Issues Surrounding a Plea Agreement

Plea bargaining is a widely used process in the military justice system, with the intention of saving time, resources, and money. These bargains also generally offer military personnel an opportunity to obtain protection against severe punishments. However, while many believe these deals are beneficial, they are surrounded by controversy. For instance, some people oppose these agreements on the grounds that they allow perpetrators to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Others may argue that plea agreements can be coercive and undermine an individual’s legal rights because they place undue pressure on the accused to plead guilty, whether guilty or not, in order to avoid harsher penalties. Despite these concerns, the Supreme Court has found plea agreements to be constitutional as long as they are made lawfully and lead to reasonable, accurate, and consistent sentences. 

Find Out More About Plea Bargains and Their Impact on Military Personnel By Speaking With an Attorney Today

If you are a military member or personnel, you may not want to work on a plea bargain alone. If you are being offered a plea bargain or want further information about the process, an attorney may be able to review your options, determine your next steps, and help you to make the right choice for your future and military career. To review your case and any questions you have regarding plea bargains, consider contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney at Driving Defense Law today by calling (757) 929-0335 to schedule a consultation.