Monday, March 5, 2012

Hanover GDC Proclaims: Not So Quick, Not-Sick Mrs. Nick!

Criminal defense attorneys are often asked to perform two very different functions:  preparing a zealous defense for trial and exploring all potential plea bargain options. An effective defense lawyer will investigate and negotiate the terms and conditions of any potential plea agreements with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Assuming that the government and the criminal defendant can agree on the terms of a plea, the agreement will then be submitted to the Court for review. 

In most cases, the Court approves the plea bargain and the parties are subject to the terms and conditions of their agreement. As a recent case in Hanover County illustrates, however, the Court has full authority to reject a plea agreement if it feels that the terms are unfair. In Commonwealth v. Nicholas, it was alleged that the defendant obtained money by false pretenses by faking a terminal cancer diagnosis.  According to public records, the defendant solicited donations from members of the public by falsely claiming that she had a terminal form of leukemia. An investigation revealed no evidence that the defendant had received any cancer treatment.

Pursuant to an agreement with prosecutors, the defendant was planning to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts in exchange for a promise that no jail time would be imposed. But the Hanover County General District Court refused the plea agreement, citing the methods used by the defendant to solicit funds, her acknowledgement of guilt, and the potential adverse impact on legitimate charitable causes should a harsher penalty not be imposed.

Although the Court rarely exercises its right to refuse plea agreements, this case underscores that the Court’s responsibility to ensure a proper balance between the interests of the public and the rights of the defendant.  In Nicholas, the plea agreement swung the pendulum too far in favor of the defendant.