Should I Take a Plea Deal?
One of the most frequent questions that I hear in my practice relates to the very difficult decision to accept the military version of a plea deal (pre-trial agreement). This question can only truly be answered after a thorough review of all the facts of a case and the unique circumstances of a client’s situation.
Based on over 15 years of experience in over 100 courts-martial, I have learned there are some common questions that should be addressed before any military member makes the decision to accept a pre-trial agreement.
Do I believe that my attorney has fully and carefully evaluated my case and given me the best possible legal advice?
Comment: Make sure to ask any questions you have about possible defenses and ways to mitigate the charges against you. Your military defense counsel may outrank you, but you still have the right to a passionate and aggressive defense.
When your future is on the line, you need to ask the tough questions. If you don’t like the answers, consider speaking with an experienced civilian court-martial attorney.
Do I fully understand all of the consequences of pleading guilty?
Comment: Military convictions are reported to the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC). These convictions will show up on a background check.
If you plead guilty, you need to understand that the conviction will likely never go away, and depending on the offenses, you may be considered a felon. As a felon you lose the right to vote and the right to own and carry weapons. You will also have to disclose your criminal history when you apply for almost any job.
For Article 120 cases and any other case involving alleged sexual misconduct, will I have to register as a sex offender?
Comment: You need to have your attorney give you a definitive answer to this question before entering any type of a plea agreement. Sex offender registration results in significant life-altering consequences. You will be subject to monitoring and scrutiny for the rest of your life.
Do I fully understand the risk-reward analysis in my case?
Comment: This involves a detailed and careful analysis of your case. This analysis should be done by an attorney with the experience necessary to give you a realistic range of potential outcomes.
If your appointed military defense counsel cannot do that, you should consider your options. You may need to hire an experienced civilian attorney that focuses their practice on military defense.
Has my attorney talked to witnesses and fully investigated my case?
Comment: Before encouraging any client to take a pre-trial agreement, your defense attorney should conduct an independent investigation and be able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s case. They should be able to tell what witnesses can be impeached through cross-examination or contradicted by other evidence.
If your appointed military attorney cannot answer these questions, you may need a different attorney.
Are there motions that could be filed to have the case or at least some of the charges dismissed?
Comment: Every military member has a constitutional right to a fair trial and due process. You have the right to all the protections of the Constitution. You swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution.
The least the military justice system can do is ensure that your rights are protected. Those rights are often defended through filing motions to dismiss your case based on unlawful command influence, or violations of your right to remain silent and consult with an attorney pursuant to Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Make sure that you understand your rights and ensure your attorney has researched all potential motions in your case before you enter an agreement to plead guilty.
Should I give up my right to a trial by jury and be tried by a military judge alone?
Comment: Over the past few years we have seen a trend of service members being advised to plead guilty and waive their right to have a military court-martial panel decide their case. This decision is crucial. While judges are often more predictable in the punishments they hand down, they are generally harsher than the sentences that a court-martial panel will adjudge.
Make sure you understand your attorney’s reasoning and strategy for this decision before you give up any of your important rights.
As an attorney who has been trying court-martial cases for over fifteen years, I have learned that military members should be asking all of these questions and more before they decide to accept a pre-trial agreement. Deciding whether or not you should plead guilty is crucial decision that will impact you for the rest of your life. If you have questions or concerns about your case, consider consulting with a member of our team of experienced military defense attorneys.
Crisp and Associates, LLC has recruited a team of respected litigators with the experience it takes to answer your questions and properly evaluate your case. Our dedicated professionals include a former Army JAG with over 17 years of experience, a former police officer, and a former Air Force JAG and military prosecutor. We offer free consultations and would be happy to discuss your case.
Attorney R. Davis Younts is a former military prosecutor who went on to be the Air Force’s number one ranked Senior Defense Counsel. Mr. Younts has been involved in more than a hundred courts-martial and has taught trial advocacy and military justice at the Air Force and Army JAG Schools. Mr. Younts continues to serve as a Lt Col in the Air Force Reserves.