If you are facing criminal charges for the first time in Texas, you probably have a lot of questions and reasonably so. “Will I be incarcerated? Will my case end in a plea deal? Will I have to go to trial?” To help you better understand how criminal cases are processed through the courts, we’re going to dig deeper into plea bargains, open pleas and trials. In Texas, there are three main ways that criminal cases are resolved, including: plea bargains, open pleas (nonnegotiated guilty pleas), and trials.
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these mean to defendants:
1. Plea Bargains When the prosecutor and defendant reach an agreement under the judge’s supervision, it’s called a “plea bargain.” Generally, what happens is the defendant pleads guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) and they waive their right to a jury trial. In exchange, the prosecutor recommends a punishment that the defendant can live with and it’s up to the judge to follow or reject the recommendation. If the judge does not accept the agreement, the defendant can withdraw his or her plea. If the judge accepts the agreement, the defendant cannot appeal the case without first obtaining the judge’s permission. “The vast majority of all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargaining,” says the State Bar of Texas Criminal Justice Section.
2. Open Pleas (Nonnegotiated Guilty Pleas) In this case, the defendant pleads guilty or nolo cotendere to his or her criminal charge; the defendant does not have any sort of agreement with the prosecutor in regards to recommended punishment. The judge then determines the sentencing. In the Texas criminal justice system, this process is called “pleading open to the court” or a “nonnegotiated guilty plea” because there is no plea bargain involved.
3. Trial All defendants in Texas have a right to a jury trial. However, defendants have the right to waive their rights to a trial by jury and instead have it handled by a judge, providing the prosecutor and judge approve. The only exception is capital felony cases involving the death penalty.