Abuja-based legal practitioners have expressed mixed feelings over the use of Plea Bargain in Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, to resolve high profile criminal cases.
The Black’s Law Dictionary defined plea bargain as
“a negotiated agreement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant who pleads guilty to a lesser offence or to one or more multiple charges in exchange for some concession by the prosecutor, usually a more lenient sentence or a dismissal of other charges’’.
It is provided for in Section 270 of the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
Some of the lawyers told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Abuja that the concept would enhance the administration of high profile cases in Nigeria.
The others said that if not handled with caution, plea bargain would promote rather than thwart corruption.
While the proponent said that plea bargain would ensure the recovering of some stolen funds; others argued that more politicians would delve deeply into corruption.
One of the lawyers, Mr Kaase Saidu, said that plea bargain would make high profile matters easier to prosecute because such offences were difficult to investigate.
Saidu said the defendants in such cases usually file many applications to thwart the cause of justice.
“If a defendant is willing to refund alleged loots, it will help in hastening the completion of the matter, especially at this stage of our judicial development.
“I feel restitution of funds should be encouraged as it is better for the funds to be returned than for others with the same charge to drag their case in court till eternity because of fear of the sanctions,’’ he said.
Contributing, Kunle Aladetoyinbo, said plea bargain was important to ensure fair administration of criminal justice in the country.
He said plea bargain was advisable when the prosecution was fully aware that the essential elements to prove his case were insufficient.
Also, Tajudeen Adegbite, said plea bargain was advantageous to the defendant and the government, and assists the court in effective management of justice delivery.
Adegbite concluded that even though it makes some people escape justice, there were still sanctions attached after the defendant admits the charge against him.
Mr Nonso Chukwuma, a lawyer, said: “Nigeria is a very volatile environment; any wrong move will create a menace.
“Stealing public funds is wrong, returning part of it and walking away is like encouraging us to steal more.
“Plea bargain is lawful but we need a tough fight to exterminate corruption from our system. If sentences don’t go with these return of money then corruption will thrive the more,’’ Chukwuma said.
Other lawyers argued that if plea bargain would be accepted for corruption, then it had to be extended to other offences.
Mr Bayo Yusuf, a lawyer, said “If we are going with the plea bargain for corrupt cases, we also have to apply it to criminal offences in Nigeria.
“What is good for the goose is good for the gander. I think that plea bargain should cut across board.
“The main criminals most times are the public office holders who loot the nation’s treasury with the pen while huge sentences are given to minor thefts.
“So, plea bargaining should cut across board,’’ Yusuf maintained.
In addition, Mr Zachian Bayei, said plea bargain had encouraged potential criminals, particularly the elites to commit crime knowing they would negotiate their ways from prosecution to get lighter sentences.
“ Plea bargain is a fraud, it doesn’t only stop criminals from prosecution, it also lessen their jail term, when convicted,’’ Bayei said.
Bayei added that although plea bargain expedites the conclusion of criminal process without the need for a formal trial, it serves less punishment on corrupt persons.
He, therefore, called for the abolition of the concept in Nigerian legal system.
In the same vein, Mrs Grace David, another legal practitioner, said plea bargain was only beneficial to prominent persons in the society.
David said the concept “encourages them to unlawfully loot public funds knowing fully that they will escape long term sentences.
According to her, this encourages the abuse of the concept, thereby giving the impression that only the poor serve long-term under the law in the country.
On his part, Mr Patrick Ogele, said only people who had looted public funds and invested within the country should benefit from plea bargain.
Ogele added that those who had stolen public funds but had invested money outside the country should not be allowed plea bargain.
According to him, this will help checking corruption practices as well as monitoring of public office holders by the citizenry.
Mr Abdulqadir Umar, said plea bargain should be used in resolving the arm deal.
Umar told NAN that the plea was available to those suspects who had no knowledge of the sources of the money received at the time of commission of the crime.
“This is because the people involved in the arm deal are not aware of the source of the money before or at the time of receiving the money.
He said that the plea should not be extended to the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), and other principal offenders.
He said that their trial would serve as deterrent to others who might want to emulate the illegal act.
Mr Ifeanyi Moses, a Lawyer, said that plea bargain was part of the new Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), which aid the defendant and the prosecution to reach a compromise.
According to him, plea bargaining is good because
it is a pragmatic method of streamlining the justice system.
Moses noted that there were cases where defendants who could not afford strong representation might be bullied into accepting a plea bargain even when they were innocent.
“While such an outcome is possible, we know that innocent defendants, especially those without strong defence counsel, can be convicted in full trials too,’’ Moses said.
Similarly, Mr Jude Kalejaiye, another lawyer, said that plea bargain was a “necessary evil’’.
According to him, without plea bargaining the justice system will become bogged down with defendants waiting a long time to go on trial.
This, he said, would be contrary to the constitutional right to a speedy trial.
“When you enter plea bargaining; instead of taking a case to trial, all parties sit down and agree on a charge and a sentence.
“This impacts the Justice system in several ways: courtrooms and judges are used minimally. So, also is the time and resources of the prosecutor and defence attorney.
“Since these sentences are lighter, the burden on our prison system is lighter. These are all good things,’’ Kalejaiye said.
Conversely, Mr Abbas Ndaji, a Court Registrar, said that the trend was unfair to the criminal justice system.
Ndaji said that although without it, courts would be overrun with cases and prisons would be filled to the brim with inmates, yet it was not right.
He said: “when plea bargain started, it is being done for good reasons like where a convict gives up information to solve other crime cases, for a lighter sentence.
“Nowadays, it looks like plea bargain is just being used as a way to save money and not go to trial. This in all realty is not serving justice.
“When criminals get off easy for their crimes it tends to ridicule our criminal justice system.
“Plea bargain is telling people that you can commit crimes and then only be held responsible for a small portion of that crime,’’ Ndaji said.
Ndaji said that the system should give room for the law to be exercised fully, depending on the circumstances of a case.
Also, Mr Peter Ejike, said the concept was not good for the society because the society was made up of the rich and the poor.
“The concept does not give the poor equal bargaining power; the concept does not also give the prosecutor and the defendant equal bargaining power when you look at it holistically,’’ Ejike said.
A constitutional lawyer, Mr Gabriel Egbule, said plea bargain was injurious to the country’s legal system because conveys an erroneous impression that encourages looting.
“It conveys an erroneous impression whereby public officers could loot as much as possible and return a little fraction of what they have looted,’’ Egbule said.(NAN)