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Official: Making plea agreements has advantages

The devil is in the details when examining the reasons behind plea agreements made in Halifax County Circuit Court. 

A plea agreement is basically defined as an arrangement between the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for special considerations.

Plea agreements can be useful to the commonwealth, depending on the case, but his office is prepared to try every case if circumstances dictate it, according to Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Freshour.

“It really depends on the case,” Freshour said on Monday. “We don’t plea bargain, we plea offer.  If we think we can get the conditions we have evidence for at the time, we’ll do that. Otherwise, we won’t plead a case out unless it benefits the commonwealth.  If we can get out of it what we think we can get out of it, then we’ll make that offer.”

Circumstances out of his control can sometimes determine the necessity of a plea agreement, Freshour explained.

“We had to plead out a case because a witness, really the only witness that could tie the defendant to the crimes, was put in prison for five years in North Carolina, and North Carolina wouldn’t allow me to bring him up to testify,” he said.

His office had to make a decision whether to drop the case and bring it back in five years, hoping the prosecution witnesses haven’t moved out of the area or have forgotten key parts of their testimony, he added.

A plea agreement at least allows the victim to receive restitution, Freshour pointed out.

“Is it something you want to do, no, but sometimes a victim’s memory is not quite certain.”

Advantages in many cases outweigh the disadvantages when considering a plea agreement, the commonwealth’s attorney explained.

“If someone is willing to plead guilty to three felonies without a trial, and we’re willing to drop one misdemeanor, the benefit to the community is one, an officer is not sitting in court two, three, four hours waiting to try a case,” said Freshour.

“He’s on the street.  We’re not paying him overtime or comp time to be in court, and they’re out patrolling the roads and the neighborhoods making sure we’re all safe and making better use of their time.”

“If we agree to nol pros a driving while suspended (charge), and that will induce a plea for habitual offender, felony DUI, felony eluding, I don’t consider that a plea agreement, because we still have to argue sentencing.

“We’re not giving up anything.”

Sentencing
guidelines
separate issue

“We have not entered into a plea agreement unless it benefits the commonwealth and its fair to the victim in the case and to law enforcement,” said Freshour.

“Sometimes witnesses tell an officer one thing the day of an incident and might testify a little differently at a preliminary hearing. What looks like a slam-dunk case could very well go to an acquittal.

“I think the major complaint I’ve heard is about all the suspended time, and that is a separate issue completely from plea agreements, because that is based on the court making a decision at sentencing on what to sentence the defendant to.

“A lot of that is based on sentencing guidelines put out by the Virginia Sentencing Commission, which recommends a certain amount of suspended time given the defendant’s background.

“It’s still up to the judge to sentence that person, and we can ask for active time, but it’s up to the judge how much time they get,” the commonwealth’s attorney continued.

A judge also can go above or below recommended guidelines, Freshour pointed out.

“That’s the judge’s discretion, and of course, there’s suspended time and probation, and they can be brought back if they violate those conditions and receive active time.”

Parole was abolished in 1995, but over the past two decades sentencing guidelines have essentially taken its place, explained Freshour.

One key reason is financial, he said, noting crowded conditions in the state correctional system.

Under current sentencing guidelines, defendants can receive more jail time for certain driving offenses than they would for more violent crimes.

Felony habitual offenders and those convicted of a fourth offense of DUI within 10 years will spend a mandatory minimum of one year in jail, according to Freshour.

“That means no good time. You serve one year,” he explained.

For an unlawful wounding conviction, sentencing guidelines may come back to no active time if the defendant has no prior record, he continued.

“We can argue for more time, but it’s up to the court how much time they get,” said Freshour.

“It depends on the facts and circumstances of the case, some are more egregious than others.”