Making an “Open Plea” in a Criminal Case
*This article relates to State cases only. It does not apply to Federal cases.
In Texas, when a defendant pleads guilty to a criminal offense, the sentencing is most often agreed upon by both the State Prosecutor and defendant prior to the plea. But, there are situations that arise wherein a defendant wishes to enter a plea of guilty, but does not agree to accept the sentencing recommendation that is being made by the State. The defendant may request that the judge assess an appropriate sentence, believing that the judge might be more fair-minded than the DA in this particular case. This situation is referred to as an “Open Plea.” In an open plea, after a defendant pleads guilty, both parties may put evidence on for the judge in order for the court to determine an appropriate sentence.
Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI) as Part of an Open Plea
In addition to witness testimony, prior to sentencing a defendant, Texas Law (Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42A.252) requires a community supervision officer to prepare and submit a written report to the court. The report should include:
- the circumstances of the offense with which the defendant is charged;
- the amount of restitution necessary to adequately compensate victims of the offense;
- the criminal and social history of the offender; and
- any other information relating to the offender or the offense requested by the judge.”
The probation officer gathers this information during a pre-sentence investigation or PSI.
The Law Regarding PSIs in Texas | When is a PSI Required?
The law requires a pre-sentence investigation in every case, UNLESS:
In a misdemeanor case:
- The defendant requests that a report not be made and the judge agrees;
- The judge finds that there is sufficient evidence in the record to permit sentencing without the report; and
- The judge explains this finding on the record.
In a felony case:
- Punishment is to be assessed by a jury;
- The defendant is convicted of or enters a plea of guilty to capital murder;
- The only available punishment is imprisonment; or
- The judge is informed that a plea bargain exists, under which the defendant agrees to a punishment of imprisonment, and the judge intends to follow that agreement.
Unless one of these scenarios are present, the court is required to conduct a pre-sentence investigation. For agreed pleas to probation or deferred adjudication, the practice by the Tarrant County courts is that pre-sentence investigation is not often conducted, even though the law would seem to dictate otherwise.
The Mechanics of a Pre-Sentence Investigation
The PSI is an interview conducted by a specialized probation officer who – along with a defendant’s attorney – gathers as much information as possible to aid in a Judge’s decision on punishment. The officer gathers the police agency’s version of the facts and the defendant’s version of the facts regarding the underlying offense. The officer will also contact the victims named in the case to obtain a victim impact statement. The probation officer also does an extensive search of the defendant’s prior criminal record as well as his or her family, financial, and education history. The officer can also include other items in the PSI such as additional physical and mental health history.
At the pre-sentence investigation interview, the attorney representing the defendant can also submit other extraneous materials to be included in the officer’s report to the court. These items can include character reference letters, additional psychological evaluations that have been conducted prior to the investigation, and additional statements by the defendant related to his or her version of the case. It is prudent for the defense attorney to contact all of the people that have submitted character letters that ensure that their letter is an accurate reflection of their feelings regarding the defendant. Many times, the probation officer, and/or the prosecutor will also reach out to these folks, so it is best to confirm their character statements at the outset.
At the conclusion of the PSI, the officer in charge prepares a written report which includes his or her assessment of the defendant’s risk to re-offend, positive and negative factors to consider, and a supervision plan should the Court choose to place the defendant on probation. For cases involving restitution, the PSI will also include a restitution recommendation.
Taking Responsibility in an Open Plea
Defendants entering an open plea to the court waive their right to a jury trial. So, when conducting the pre-sentence investigation, the probation officer will confirm that the defendant is taking responsibility for his or her crime. This is an important part of the process. If the defendant has entered a plea of guilty to the crime in court but then denies the offense at the PSI, the officer will stop the investigation and return the case to court. One of the primary advantages, from a strategic standpoint, of entering an open plea is to communicate to the court that the defendant is taking on full responsibility for the crime. This is done in hopes that the court will take that into consideration when determining an appropriate sentence. It is this attitude of acceptance that typically garners the best results in an open plea. This is sometimes referred to in layman’s terms as throwing oneself on the “mercy of the court.”
Getting the Most Out of the PSI
Defense attorneys whose clients have opted for an open plea and a pre-sentence investigation can help their cause by supplementing the officer with as much positive information as possible. As mentioned above, it’s important for an attorney to gather additional character letters and to explore outside mental and psychological evaluations that might be conducted to be included in the report to the court. Additionally, if the defendant has already been serving community service, taking rehabilitative classes, or saving toward restitution, you should explain that and provide records to back it up.
Once the PSI is completed and submitted to the judge, the court will set the case for a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, testimony from both the defendant and character witnesses will be taken into consideration. But, it’s the pre-sentence investigation report that will typically be the most important item that the court reviews.
Not all cases involve a pre-sentence investigation. But, when a PSI is conducted, it can provide the most thorough review of a case and defendant’s background aiding in a court to assess a fair and just punishment.