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Harris County No Longer Accepting Early Plea Agreements in Possession Cases

After an investigation by a local newspaper and the fallout of having to pay out nearly $150,000 in taxpayer dollars to those wrongfully convicted of drug possession, Harris County, Texas, is now changing its drug testing policy. The new policy disallows prosecutors to accept plea agreements before obtaining the results of drug tests. The previous policy allowed prosecutors to accept guilty pleas from offenders in drug possession cases prior to confirmation from a crime laboratory testing. Later tests prove that the substances were mistakenly identified as illegal narcotics by the police conducting field substance tests. Many defendants, after accepting a guilty plea, were sentenced and served time in jail for these offenses. County officials say that approximately 200 cases were later overturned.

Defense attorneys in the area have long complained that prosecutors were offering their clients “one-day-only” type deals. The “one-day-only” plea deals is another story all to itself. It’s hard to believe that justice anywhere can swing on hasty decisions made by lawyers with less than complete information. I assure you the system is not meant to work that way. Many defendants took the deal fearing that the offer would be rescinded and harsher penalties would be negotiated at a later date. Along with this new policy, prosecutors are clarifying that those suspected and charged with felony drug possession will not be penalized if they choose to wait on the results of the crime lab testing.

What You Should Know Before You Accept a Plea Agreement

Most cases are settled based on a plea bargain between the prosecutor and the defendant (and his lawyer of course). In fact, only a small percentage of criminal cases result in a full jury trial. The plea agreement often lessens the amount of jail time a defendant is facing in a particular case. Additionally, the prosecutor may offer to drop certain charges in return for a guilty plea on other charges. For the prosecutor, this allows early disposition of the case, which in turns saves his or her office time and money.

Negotiations between the prosecutor and defendant during plea discussions cannot be used later at trial, should a plea agreement not be reached. This rule is to maintain the integrity of the negotiation. However, any statements made to someone other than the prosecutor or after negotiations have ceased may be used as evidence should the case go to trial.

Once the defendant and prosecutor have agreed to a plea deal, the judge then decides whether or not to accept the agreement. Typically, judges accept the agreement and sentence defendants as recommended by the prosecution. However, in some cases, a judge may reject the plea agreement and hand down a harsher sentence than the plea agreement. This may happen when the judge believes that the recommended sentence is too light in comparison to the charge and the defendant’s criminal history.

Finality of Plea Agreements

Most plea agreements, and the prescribed sentencing attached, are final. However, in special circumstances, as illustrated by the drug testing issue in Harris County, a defendant may have his or her sentence appealed and conviction thrown out. Therefore, it is well advised that those who are charged with a crime contact an experienced criminal law attorney prior to accepting any plea agreement.

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates are ready and willing to help you if you have been charged with a crime. Contact us by calling (281) 280-0100. We have evening, weekend, as well as off-site appointments available by request.