If you have been arrested for a felony in New Jersey, it does not automatically mean you will be indicted and tried in court.
First, the prosecutor must have sufficient evidence to make moving forward in your case worthwhile.
Second, because courts in New Jersey are crowded, a prosecutor may seek to resolve a case as quickly and easily as possible, which means avoiding a trial.
If you have been notified of a pre-indictment conference, and you have not yet retained an experienced criminal defense attorney, you should do so right away. This is likely to be your best chance to avoid an indictment and court trial.
When Does a Pre-Indictment Conference Occur?
Depending on where you have been arrested, you may be notified of a pre-indictment conference in:
- Early Disposition Court (EDC)
- Pre-Disposition Court (PDC)
- Pre-Indictment Program (PIP Court).
The pre-indictment or pre-disposition conference is designed to try to resolve felony or indictable criminal matters before they are presented to the Grand Jury. In some counties, prosecutors pre-screen potential Superior Court filings before a complaint is signed.
Because the prosecutor will make his or her best plea offer at this stage in a case, the pre-indictment court conference can be very advantageous for a defendant.
However, the pre-indictment conference is not for the inexperienced defense attorney. There is very limited time at a pre-indictment conference to review discovery and negotiate with the prosecutor.
What Happens in a New Jersey Pre-indictment Conference?
Typically, before a pre-indictment conference, the prosecutor’s Case Screening Unit reviews police reports and interviews victims and witnesses to determine whether the prosecutor’s office should pursue the original charges against a defendant.
If the prosecutor’s office believes there is insufficient evidence, a charge will likely be downgraded to a disorderly persons offense and either dismissed or remanded (or returned) to the municipal court for a hearing.
However, if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, the prosecutor’s office must weigh the seriousness of the crime, the likelihood of conviction and the cost of going to court. These factors will all go into the initial plea bargain that will be offered at the pre-indictment conference.
At the conference, the representative from the prosecutor’s office will state the plea offer and provide the defendant with limited discovery. Then, the defendant must make a decision of whether to accept the offer and enter a plea.
How Does ‘Limited Discovery’ Impact Pre-Indictment Conference Decisions?
“Discovery” is sharing evidence that the prosecution has gathered in the case. Full discovery, which is required before trial, includes evidence that would hurt or help a defendant’s case. However, “limited discovery,” particularly accompanying a plea offer the prosecutor wants you to take, will include only damaging evidence.
A defendant who has engaged a defense attorney soon enough prior to a pre-indictment conference may benefit from the attorney’s investigation of the case and understand the evidence better than what is depicted in limited discovery. This makes it easier to weigh the plea offer.
Ultimately, the defendant, through his or her attorney, must choose one of three options in a pre-indictment conference:
- Accept the plea offer, which means agreeing to plead guilty to the crime and accept the penalty as put forth by the prosecutor’s office.
- Reject the plea offer and allow the prosecutor to proceed to the grand jury for an indictment.
- Negotiate for a better plea arrangement and ultimately accept it.
In some cases, a defendant may apply for a pre-trial intervention program. PTI, as it is often called, serves as a diversionary program. It allows certain defendants to avoid formal prosecution by entering into a term of court-supervised community living, often with counseling or other support.
A defendant must be recommended for PTI by probation, and the prosecutor’s office must approve PTI before it goes before a judge, who must in turn approve it.
PTI is usually available for first time non-violent offenders. Probationers, parolees and defendants charged with violent offenses, racketeering or organized crime generally do not qualify.
Should You Accept the Plea Offer in a Pre-Indictment Conference?
Assuming you do not qualify for PTI, you have to make a decision about the prosecutor’s plea offer. The rule of thumb is that, as stated above, the offer at the pre-indictment conference may be the best one you receive.
Each case is different, and each defendant’s situation is different. But you must consider that, because of limited discovery, you will not get to see all of the prosecutor’s evidence.
This is when having experienced criminal defense attorney at your side becomes extremely valuable. If your attorney has already investigated the case, he has a better idea of what is in the prosecutor’s hand.
For several reasons, a prosecutor’s case may actually falter. Those reasons include:
- You were improperly arrested
- You were subjected to an unlawful search and seizure
- You were not properly advised of your Miranda rights
- The prosecution’s witnesses are unreliable or unavailable
- The prosecution’s evidence is open to challenge
- The evidence simply weighs in your favor.
Even without the benefit of time to conduct an investigation, an experienced criminal defense attorney recognizes the difficulty of winning cases with charges like yours, what sentence a conviction would likely bring, and whether the plea offer is a fair one given the circumstances of your case.
In some cases, entering into a plea agreement can actually cause long-term harm by limiting your options for appealing a conviction or your ability to petition for expungement of your records at a later date. (It should be noted that defendants who plead guilty after plea negotiations do not surrender their right to appeal their convictions, but any guilty plea makes an appeal more difficult.)
Let an Experienced Lawyer for NJ Pre-Indictment Conferences Protect Your Rights
The Law Offices of Anthony J. Vecchio, LLC, can assist if you face a potential indictment in the state of New Jersey. We move immediately upon being retained and demand that the prosecution turn over all available evidence in your case.
Once we have that evidence, Anthony will review it thoroughly and carefully with you to analyze all witness statements, reports, video, digital evidence and other materials. Where discrepancies arise, our team investigates.
With Anthony J. Vecchio at your side, you have a skilled, experienced and knowledgeable advocate to assist you in a pre-indictment hearing. He will protect your rights, negotiate with prosecutors to seek the best outcome achievable and advise you according to your best interests. Contact us today to discuss your case.