A plea bargain is the process of negotiation between a prosecutor and a defendant where either of the parties offers or starts a negotiation process by which the defendant pleads guilty of certain offences/charges in exchange for a lesser punishment or jail term. Plea bargaining is a form of contract, and as a result, a court would only enforce such bargain between the prosecutor and the defendant if both parties have fulfilled what they promised to door not to do.
Even if it is one of the parties that has failed to comply with the terms of agreement of the plea bargaining, either by commission or omission, it would be considered to be unenforceable in court. Sometimes, the bargain could be in a form where the defendant pleads guilty of certain offences and the prosecutor promise to drop some other charges. In this kind of situation, when everything is agreed but the prosecutor went on ahead and filed more charges, the initial the bargain would be nullified, as the prosecutor’s behaviour is considered to be a breach of contract and unprofessional.
If you happen to be in the defendant’s shoes, it is always advisable to put the agreement in writing as provided for in Section 270(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, (ACJA)2015 to save yourself from being the victim of malicious prosecutors. In Nigeria, Section 270-277 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 is the provision that covers the scope of Plea bargaining and plea generality. The provision provides for the guidelines to follow and the behaviours of both the judge/magistrate and the parties involved, that is the prosecutor and the defendant. Although the parties are at freedom to negotiate terms of the plea bargain, the bargain must not be against the interest of justice, public interest, public policy and need to prevent abuse of legal Processes as provided in section 270(3) of the ACJA, 2015. The result of the negotiation must reflect the above requirements.
Even though a judge or magistrate is prohibited from taking part in the process of the Negotiation by section 270(8) of the ACJA,2015, he still has the power to enquire and confirm about the accuracy of defendant’s pleas to make sure that he plead guilty of such offences. Section 270(9) and (10) of the ACJA, 2015.
Section 270 (11) (b) went on further to give the judge or magistrate total control of the outcome of the negotiation by providing that a judge or magistrate may impose a lesser sentence on the defendant than the one agreed by the prosecutor and the defendant if he thinks that the lesser sentence is more appropriate. Paragraph (c) of the same section goes further to provide the flip side of the situation, where the judge or magistrate thinks that heavier sentence should be imposed, he should inform the defendant of such heavier sentence he considers being appropriate.
Some advantages of plea bargaining include;
- It is cost-effective. Because it saves both parties from the spending much money on the case, especially when it is prolonged and appeals are involved.
- It saves time and energy. When the defendant agrees to negotiate an offer of plea bargainingfrom the prosecutor, he is saving time and energy for the prosecutor if not perhaps for both of them.
- It quickens the whole process of a trial and stops expanse of trial and appeal. This is a very important feature of plea bargaining because given the slowness of the process of adjudication in Nigeria, more techniques like it and alternative dispute resolution are more than welcome.
- No anticipatory panic for the defendant as he would know exactly what the verdict is going to be. Though this may only be enjoyed by the defendant, it should be noted that even the prosecutor has got what he wanted as he is also saved from the uncertainty of the outcome of the trial.
- Plea bargaining creates somewhat a situation of a win-win, even though one party might end up serving a jail term. It may be called a win-win because the verdict that was given was based on the agreement of both parties.
- The beauty of plea bargaining is that either party can begin or offer to bargain, not necessarily the defendant. Which further makes it easy to happen because one party must have felt that he might lose so the door of plea bargaining open to ensure a win-win situation. Maybe it is the prosecutor that has not produced enough evidence to prove his charges on the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, so he may offer to bargain and the defendant would be more than happy to negotiate as no one would like to gamble with his freedom, especially when they are guilty.
- Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.