In some cases, plea negotiations involve “stayed adjudications” or “submittals” that allow the defendant’s charges to be totally dismissed. In other plea bargains, charges for felonies can get reduced to lower-level felonies or even misdemeanors. But if a defendant ever regrets entering a plea, it is very difficult to then withdraw a plea.
In this article our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys answer frequently-asked-questions about plea bargains in Nevada. Scroll down for more information about the definition, procedures, and pros and cons of resolving a criminal case without a trial.
(Click on a question to go directly to the answer)
- What is a plea bargain in Nevada?
- What are the benefits?
- What are the downsides?
- What strategies do defense attorneys use to negotiate a plea bargain with prosecutors?
- Where does my defense attorney negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors
- When can my defense attorney negotiate a plea bargain?
- How long does it take to negotiate?
- Do plea bargains have to include fixed terms, or can it include a range of possible terms?
- If my case goes to trial, can I accept a plea bargain during the trial?
- Can I accept a plea bargain after my criminal trial?
- Do all plea deals require me to plead guilty?
- Do some plea deals involve jail or prison time?
- Can I get probation?
- Can I plead “no contest” instead of “guilty”?
- Will prosecutors ever refuse to negotiate a criminal case?
- Will judges always agree to plea deals?
- How do I enter a plea?
- Does the judge sentence me on the same day I enter a plea?
- Do I have to be present to enter a plea?
- Are there some charges that cannot be resolved through a plea?
- What if I break the terms?
- Can I withdraw a plea?
- Can non-citizens take plea bargains?
- Am I ever required to take a plea?
- What are some common plea bargains?
Also see our article on conditional plea agreements.
“Plea bargains” go by various other names such as:
- plea deals, or
- plea agreements
Everyone charged with a crime in Nevada is entitled to a trial. A plea bargain is when the defendant and prosecution in a criminal case agree to a final result without going to trial. If the defense and prosecution cannot agree to a plea bargain, the case will go to trial.
In essence, plea bargains are the criminal law version of “settling out of court.” Pleas involve negotiation and compromise, but the defendant will probably get a resolution more favorable than if he/she went to trial and lost.
Example: Dave gets charged with a first-time DUI in Nevada in Las Vegas Municipal Court. Dave admitted to the cop that he was driving drunk, and his blood test results show a high blood-alcohol-content (BAC). Furthermore, Dave’s defense attorney cannot find anything in the evidence that suggests police misconduct or false BAC results. Dave’s defense attorney explains that Dave has a slim chance of winning if he went to trial because the evidence is skewed in the prosecution’s favor. And if Dave went to trial and lost, he would potentially face the maximum DUI penalties of 6 months in jail and $1,000 in fines.
Since Dave wishes to avoid going to jail, he asks his defense attorney to try to negotiate a favorable plea deal with the prosecutor. Dave’s attorney initially suggests that the prosecutor reduce the DUI charge to reckless driving, but the prosecutor refuses. Dave’s attorney then suggests that Dave plead to a DUI with the minimum penalties:
- $810 in fines;
- Victim Impact Panel class;
- DUI School class;
- The defendant may not pick up any new arrests or citations while the case is open; and
- No jail unless Dave does not complete the other sentencing terms
If the prosecutor in the above example agrees to the defense attorney’s offer, the judge will probably agree with it as well and sign off on the deal. By entering this plea Dave will have a DUI conviction on his record, but he gets to stay out of jail as long as he is compliant with the sentencing terms.
Most defendants in Nevada criminal cases end up taking a plea bargain for the following two reasons:
- The defendant avoids the time and expense of trial; and
- The terms of a plea are usually laxer than the penalties the judge may impose following a guilty verdict at trial.
In all, defendants retain an element of feeling “in control” by taking a plea. Going to trial puts the defendant’s fate in the judge’s or jury’s hands, and that uncertainty can be very unnerving.
Taking a plea in Nevada comes with a price, including the following three concessions:
- The defendant waives his/her right to a trial;
- It may be impossible to reverse a plea deal if the defendant later changes his/her mind; and
- The defendant risks the possibility that the judge will not agree to the plea bargain and will impose a harsher punishment (but this hardly ever happens).
In sum, taking a plea requires the defendant to acknowledge some responsibility and perhaps to plead guilty to a crime(s). And by taking the plea, the defendant loses the possibility of a “not guilty” verdict at trial that could exonerate him/her completely.
First the defense attorney would investigate all the possible evidence in the case including searching for witnesses, surveillance video, and anything else that could show the defendant in a favorable light. The defense attorney then goes to the prosecutor and points out all the holes and inaccuracies in the state’s evidence. If the defense attorney is successful, the prosecutors may doubt their ability to prove the defendant guilty if they took the case to trial.
If the prosecutors think they may have a weak case against the defendant, they may offer a good plea deal whereby the charges get dismissed or reduced to lesser offenses. But even if the prosecutors think they have a strong case, they often will still offer some kind of plea bargain in the hopes of avoiding trial.
In most Nevada criminal cases, the defense attorney and prosecutors negotiate through email and/or over the phone. In more serious cases, the attorneys on both sides may schedule office meetings. Sometimes, plea negotiations even take place in the courtroom while the judge is off the bench or in the hallways of the courthouse.
The defense and prosecution may try to negotiate a resolution at any time during the life of a criminal case up until a trial verdict is rendered. Often the plea bargaining negotiations begin shortly after the defendant has his/her arraignment. In some cases, plea deal talks can commence when a defendant is only under investigation and has not even been arrested yet.
When prosecutors make an plea deal offer, they usually include a deadline by which time the defendant must accept or else the offer will be rescinded. In many cases, prosecutors offer the most favorable plea deals early on in the court process shortly after the arraignment. If the defendant stalls in taking a deal, the prosecutor may punish the defendant by worsening the plea deal offer.
Depending on the case, it may be worth waiting before the defendant commits to a plea deal. If during the pretrial process the defense attorney can demonstrate that the state has insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution may be willing to sweeten the plea offer.
It varies case-to-case. Sometimes a plea resolution is reached over the course of one phone call or email exchange. Sometimes plea negotiations take weeks, months, or longer. Low-level misdemeanor cases are often resolved quicker than high-level felony cases.
Felony plea bargains often include ranges of possible terms, such as “2 to 5 years in prison.” It is then up to the judge to determine at the sentencing hearing how much prison to impose. Depending on what the defense and prosecution agree to in the plea bargain, the prosecution may either remain silent at sentencing or else argue that the judge impose penalties on the higher side of the range.
Yes. The defense and prosecution can seek a plea resolution even while the criminal trial is going on. But once the verdict is rendered, the defendant loses the opportunity to plea bargain.
No, not once the judge or jury returns a verdict. Once the verdict is rendered, the defendant may not retroactively accept the prosecutor’s previous plea bargain offer. If the defendant does not like the outcome of a criminal trial in Nevada, his/her only modes for relief are to move for a new trial and/or submit an appeal.
Not all. It depends on the case.
In some misdemeanor criminal cases in Nevada, the prosecutor may agree to a plea bargain by “submittal.” This is when the judge delays judgment until after the defendant performs all the terms of the plea bargain (such as paying a fine, doing community service, or attending a class). If the defendant successfully finishes the terms, the judge will dismiss the case without the defendant ever having to enter a plea or getting convicted.
In some other misdemeanor and felony cases, the prosecutor may agree to plea bargain by “stayed adjudication.” This is when the judge permits the defendant to withdraw his/her guilty plea prior to the judge rendering a judgment in the case as long as the defendant successfully finishes all the sentencing terms. The judge will then dismiss the charge, and the defendant will have no conviction.
Otherwise, defendants entering into plea deals will have to enter a guilty plea, which will then count as a criminal conviction.
Yes. For more serious felony cases in Nevada, one of the terms of the plea bargain can include time in custody. Felony plea bargains can also include term “ranges” such as 2 to 5 years in prison, and it is ultimately up to the judge to decide how much prison within that term to impose.
In most Nevada misdemeanor cases, the plea deal sentences involve no jail and just fines, community service, and/or educational classes.
It depends on the case. There are some criminal charges for which the court is legally prohibited from granting probation.1 These include:
- DUI causing substantial injury or death
- battery domestic violence
- causing death through a medical or health care procedure without a license
- felonies committed to promote or in furtherance of gangs
- contravening a protective order by committing attempted murder, battery which involves the use of a deadly weapon, battery which results in substantial bodily harm, or battery which is committed by strangulation
- using a deadly weapon or tear gas in the commission of murder, first-degree kidnapping, rape, or robbery
- sex trafficking a child
- vehicular homicide
- tampering with a breath ignition interlock device
- manufacturing drugs other than marijuana
- home invasion or burglary when the defendant has a previous conviction for home invasion or burglary
- larceny from a person when the victim has an infirmity
Usually, yes. Pleading “no contest” yields the same result as pleading “guilty”…which is a conviction. But by pleading “no contest,” the defendant is not admitting guilt. Instead, “no contest” is merely an acknowledgment that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to prove guilt. For that reason many defendants prefer to plead “no contest” instead of “guilty.”
Prosecutors will usually entertain plea negotiations in any of their cases, but they are under no obligation to resolve a case without a trial. Furthermore prosecutors usually have a quota of cases they are required to take to trial. If there is specific a case the prosecutor wants to take to trial, the prosecutor may purposely not offer any good plea deals to ensure the defendant will choose to go to trial.
In the vast majority of cases, the judge will defer to any plea negotiation agreed to by the defense and prosecution. But note that the judge is not legally obliged to rubber stamp a plea deal…the judge always has the discretion to reject a plea deal and impose his/her own sentencing terms. But this hardly ever happens.
Note that if a judge does not agree to the plea deal, the defendant can undo the guilty plea and request a trial as long as the DA agrees. (NRS 174.035)
If the defense and prosecution agree to a resolution, they will tell the judge at the next court date. Either the defense attorney or the prosecutor will dictate the terms of the plea deal to the judge. Then the judge will ask the defendant a series of questions to determine whether the defendant understands the resolution and the rights he/she is giving up.
Finally the judge will impose the sentence, which is almost always identical to the sentence the defense and prosecution already agreed to. The defendant will then get another court date by which time the sentencing terms should be completed.
It depends whether the charge is for a misdemeanor or felony. In Nevada misdemeanor cases, the judge typically imposes a sentence right after the entry of plea. In Nevada felony cases, the judge imposes the sentence on a different day usually weeks after the entry of plea.
It depends on two factors:
- Whether the charges are for a misdemeanor or a felony, and
- Whether the plea deal includes a period of incarceration or a “suspended jail sentence” (which is where the judge can impose jail if the defendant fails to complete the other sentencing terms of the plea agreement)
In Nevada misdemeanor cases where the resolution involves no jail time or a suspended jail sentence, the defense attorney can appear in court without the defendant present and enter the plea on the defendant’s behalf.
In Nevada misdemeanor cases where the resolution involves jail time or a suspended jail sentence, the judge usually prefers for the defendant to be present to enter the plea. However if the defendant lives out of state, the judge may accept a “written entry of plea” in lieu of the defendant’s presence. A written entry of plea is a notarized document that the defendant signs acknowledging that he/she understands the terms of the plea deal.
In Nevada felony cases, the defendant is required to be present for the entry of plea even if sentence involves no prison time.
No. Potentially every criminal case can be resolved by a negotiation, even murder. But both the defense and prosecution as well as the judge have to agree to the negotiation in order to avoid trial.
Every plea bargain agreement outlines the consequences for violating its terms. Depending on the case, violating a plea bargain agreement can result in a judicial slap on the wrist, fines, more sentencing terms, or incarceration.
If the plea bargain included a suspended jail sentence, the judge has the discretion to impose that sentence as punishment for failure to carry out the terms of the plea bargain. But if the defendant has a good excuse for violating the terms of the plea bargain, the judge may give the defendant a pass.
Defendants who regret entering a plea can always try to withdraw their plea by filing a motion to withdraw the plea…but the success rate for taking back a plea is very low in Nevada. The most effective arguments for having a plea withdrawn include:
- The defendant had ineffective assistance of legal counsel.
- The defendant did not make the plea knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently.
- The defendant was not informed that probation may be unavailable.
Defendants who entered a plea but have not yet been sentenced have a greater chance of withdrawing a plea than defendants who have already been sentenced. Judges will not withdraw a plea just because defendants are dissatisfied with their sentences…by taking the plea in the first place, defendants assume the risk of the judge imposing an unfavorable sentence.
Anyone charged with a crime in Nevada has the opportunity to resolve the case without a trial. For immigrants and non-citizens who are charged with deportable offenses, it is critical that they come to a resolution which does not put them at risk at being thrown out of the country.
Example: Pablo is a legal resident in Nevada in the process of applying for full citizenship. Las Vegas police arrest Pablo for child abuse, which is a crime of moral turpitude and can therefore get him deported from the U.S. Pablo does not want to go to trial, so his defense attorney tries to work out a plea bargain with the district attorney. The D.A. concedes there may be insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction for child abuse, but he is unwilling to dismiss the case outright. So instead the D.A. offers to reduce the charge to disorderly conduct.
If Pablo agrees to the D.A.’s offer in the above example, Pablo will not risk deportation because disorderly conduct is not a deportable offense.
No. Criminal defendants are never required to resolve a case without a trial. Every person charged with a crime in Nevada including minor traffic tickets has the right to a trial.
Below are some typical plea resolutions in Nevada for first-time offense charges of petit larceny, battery domestic violence, and personal drug possession.
Plea terms for first-time petit larceny (stealing less than $1,200 worth of property):
- $250; and
- Petit larceny class; and
- The defendant may not get any further arrests or citations while the case is open
Upon successful completion of these terms, the judge will dismiss the case so there is no conviction. If the defendant does not complete the terms, the defendant will get convicted of petty larceny. Note that the maximum penalties for a petty larceny conviction is 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 in fines. Learn more in our article on petit larceny.
Plea terms for first-time misdemeanor battery domestic violence:
- 2 days of jail (the defendant usually gets credit for the time he/she served following the arrest); and
- 48 to 120 hours of community service; and
- Up to $1,000 in fines; and
- 6 months of weekly counseling; and
- The defendant may not get any further arrests or citations while the case is open
Upon successful completion of these terms, the judge will close the case. Although the defendant will have a conviction for battery domestic violence, he/she can petition the court to seal the record once seven years pass after the case is closed. Learn more about sealing criminal records in Nevada.
Note that the maximum penalties for a battery domestic violence conviction is 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 in fines. For more information see our article on battery domestic violence.
Plea terms for first-time felony possession of drugs for personal use:
- A drug education class or a rehab program; and
- Fines; and
- 1 year suspended sentence in Nevada State Prison; and
- The defendant may not get any further arrests or citations while the case is open
Upon successful completion of these terms, the judge will dismiss the case so there is no conviction. If the defendant does not complete the terms, the defendant will get convicted of felony drug possession and may have to serve up to 1 year in custody. For more information see our article on possession of drugs for personal use.
1NRS 453.321; NRS 200.485 NRS;200.830; NRS 200.840; NRS 205.060; NRS 205.067; NRS 205.270; NRS 484C.420; NRS 484C.430; NRS 453.322; NRS 484C.440; NRS 484C.470; NRS 201.300; NRS 193.165; NRS 193.166; NRS 193.168.