If I turn down a plea offer and get convicted at trial, will the prosecutor ask the judge to impose more time than he specified in the plea offer?
When prosecutors offer a plea bargain to a defendant, they have presumably studied the case and the evidence, spoken with witnesses and victims, and decided on a fair and appropriate sentence. But defendants often reject bargains, and take their chances at trial. One of the risks they take is that the prosecutor may end up recommending a harsher sentence than the one proposed as part of the plea bargain. Or, even if the recommendation remains the same, the judge may not follow it.
In some cases, a prosecutor's recommendation for more jail time than was originally offered will seem like a punishment for going to trial. In these cases, little is learned at trial that wasn't known when the plea was offered. For example, witnesses may testify just as they were expected to do, based on police reports and investigators' reports; and physical evidence may be admitted just as planned. Particularly when the defendant offers no defense, a trial might just be an enactment of what the lawyers knew all along. In these situations, there's little to defend a prosecutor's demand for a harsher sentence post-trial.
However, some trials amplify what's known about the crime and the defendant, which may lead the prosecutor to reconsider the appropriateness of the sentence tied to his original offer. This may have been the case in the trial of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who was convicted of using a webcam to spy on his roommate (who was engaged in romantic activities with another man). Mr. Ravi rejected a plea offer that included no jail time, but was convicted. The prosecution asked the sentencing judge for a state prison sentence of one to ten years (the judge imposed thirty days).
It's possible that the prosecution's changed recommendation was meant to punish the defendant for demanding a trial. But it's also possible that the evidence at trial went beyond what the prosecutor thought he could prove at the time he offered the bargain. For example, in the time between the offer and trial, new evidence may have come to light, and additional witnesses found.
Judges are generally free to impose the sentence they feel is just, even when there's a plea bargain. Typically, the prosecutor will follow the specifics of the offer, and ask for no more; and in some situations, judges are consulted before the plea is made official.
by: Sara J. Berman