New Jersey’s criminal code classifies crimes by degrees and divides all crimes into indictable offenses, disorderly persons offenses, or petty disorderly persons offenses. The crime degree corresponds to the severity of the crime and its commensurate punishments. For instance, those convicted of first-degree crimes may serve a 20-year prison term and pay up to $200,000.00 in fines. Second, third, and fourth-degree crimes come with prison sentences of up to 10 years, 5 years, and 18 months, respectively. In addition to prison, indictable crimes carry high fines.
Moreover, if you commit one of the most egregious crimes, first and second-degree crimes, you can expect to serve time in prison. In other words, you are in for an uphill battle to get the prosecutor or judge to lower the sentence from prison to probation because first and second-degree crimes come with a presumption of incarceration. However, even if the state accuses you of committing a second-degree crime, your charges might be downgraded to a third-degree crime. And third-degree crimes do not come with a presumption of prison. The Superior Court prosecutor (all indictable crimes resolve in superior court) may charge you with the highest possible crime, but that does not mean you will be convicted of that crime. An experienced criminal defense attorney might get the prosecutor to agree to charge you with a lesser offense.
How do Felony and Disorderly Persons Charges get Downgraded?
Of course, your lawyer might first attempt to get the charges against you dismissed if the prosecutor’s evidence against you is weak or weakened by police misconduct that violated your constitutional rights. Police do make mistakes or take shortcuts to make an arrest. When that happens, skillful legal counsel may challenge the legality of the arrest or any evidence obtained in an illegal stop or arrest. An attorney may file a motion to suppress the evidence that the police obtained illegally, so it is not used against you to prove that you committed a specific crime. If a judge grants the motion to suppress, this may lead the court to dismiss a case or entice a prosecutor to accept a better plea bargain. Often, the prosecutor agrees to a plea for lesser charges, whereby the defendant pleads guilty to get a lighter sentence and a downgraded crime.
Reducing a Charge from an Indictable Crime to a Disorderly Persons Offense
A prosecutor may dismiss a case they cannot successfully prosecute or enter into a favorable plea agreement with the defense. Barring a dismissal, the next priority in defending a client may be to convince the prosecutor to downgrade the charges based on the same grounds, namely, holes in the prosecutor’s case. For example, a defense attorney may offer that their client’s third or fourth degree theft charge should be downgraded because the offense resulted in no damage to the victim’s property, and the items taken were valued at just over $200.00. The threshold for a petty theft crime, a disorderly persons offense, is $200.00. If the defendant has a clean criminal record, the prosecutor may agree to downgrade the crime to a lower offense. So, a defendant charged with third-degree theft of movable property may have the charge reduced from an indictable offense to a disorderly persons offense. Third degree convictions come with a possible five-year prison sentence. In contrast, petty theft results in a maximum of six months in jail and a higher probability of a first-time offender getting a conditional dismissal or probation rather than jail time.
Plea Agreements to Lesser Charges to Avoid Trial
The negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys can be complex yet creative. For a defendant charged with multiple crimes, a defense attorney may get the prosecutor to drop some charges and downgrade others in exchange for guilty pleas to crimes the prosecutor feels they can successfully prosecute. If a prosecutor believes they can win a case, they may be less inclined to bargain, but no set of facts presented to a jury is guaranteed to be successful. Prosecutors know this and so may agree to concessions in exchange for certain pleas. Trials are time-consuming, stressful efforts for all involved. When 12 jurors decide guilt or innocence, the outcome is never without risk. Jurors come to cases with their perceptions, prejudices, and experiences. Subjective factors like the attitude of either attorney or a witness may influence their decision. Even experienced prosecutors risk losing, and even with cases that seem likely to win. Thus, prosecutors often negotiate plea agreements instead of trials.
A defense attorney may persuade the prosecutor to downgrade a crime if the crime is a borderline indictable offense and disorderly persons. Other crimes, like shoplifting or drug possession, are graded by value and amount thresholds, so the prosecutor may be more inclined to downgrade them, depending on the circumstances and a defendant’s actions. A defendant who attempts to mitigate the damages of their crime, like cooperating with law enforcement, returning stolen items, or turning over drugs to the police, may induce the prosecutor to agree to a downgrade.
Preventing a Criminal Conviction through Diversion Program or Municipal Ordinance
These same considerations may result in another downgrade of sorts, the Pre-Trial Intervention Program. A first-time offender, typically charged with a third or fourth-degree crime, may avoid prison by completing the PTI program. When it comes to felony offenses, some may also result in probation, community service, or PTI alternatives, depending on the circumstances. A defendant who completes a diversionary program avoids going to jail and prevents having a criminal conviction on their record. And in municipal court, the prosecutor may agree to downgrade a disorderly persons offense to a municipal ordinance to avoid jail and the defendant having a criminal record. This is common in cases such as disorderly conduct.
Talk to a Morristown Criminal Attorney about Downgrading Your Charges
All crimes and offenses have consequences. Even beyond fines and jail time, you have a record that may hinder your future employment and housing prospects. As such, you do not want to face a prosecutor without a solid criminal defense attorney to help you reach the best outcome, considering your circumstances. You may not believe that you have a chance to avoid heavy consequences, especially if your charges include a felony crime. Still, your attorney may be able to get the charges downgraded so that the presumption of incarceration no longer applies to your conviction, and there may be facts and circumstances enabling your attorney to argue for a lesser sentence or probation. Contact a criminal defense lawyer in Morris County for advice and assurance. You can access a free consultation and speak with an experienced attorney by contacting 973-524-7238 anytime 24/7.