Judges Gavel

Plea agreements made between defendants and their attorneys and prosecutors aren't a done deal unless approved by a judge. Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca became an example of that this week.

Multiple People Who Reported to Baca Already Convicted and Sentenced

Baca, who retired from his position in 2014 after serving four terms, pleaded guilty in February to lying to federal authorities regarding allegations that his department attempted to block an inquiry into abuses against inmates in the county jails by deputies. The deal would have meant less prison time for him (a maximum term of six months) than anyone else who was convicted of being part of these abuses or the ensuing cover-up.

By the time Baca pleaded guilty in February to a single count of lying to federal authorities, seven sheriff's officials had already been convicted in related cases, receiving sentences of a year and a half to more than three years in prison. His second in command received a five-year prison sentence.

Plea Agreement Would "Trivialize the Seriousness of the Offenses"

A U.S. district court judge ruled on July 18 that the punishment allowed for Baca under the plea agreement "would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses" and would not sufficiently deter other law enforcement officers from committing similar crimes. He also said that a maximum six-month sentence "underappreciates this defendant's culpability" in the violence of deputies against prisoners that was serious enough to warrant medical treatment.

Baca's attorney has argued that his 74-year-old client is suffering from Alzheimer's disease -- albeit, in the early stages. Prosecutors have countered that he has only "slight" impairment and would receive any required medical care in prison.

Baca and Attorneys Must Consider Other Options

Since the plea agreement was not approved, the judge told Baca that he could withdraw his guilty plea. Now he and his attorneys need to decide whether to accept a sentence handed down by the judge or renegotiate an agreement with federal prosecutors for a sentence that the judge may be willing to accept.

Most cases are not as high profile or as subject to media and public scrutiny as this one. However, when criminal defense attorneys work to negotiate plea agreements for their clients with prosecutors, they keep in mind the best interests of their clients and what both prosecutors and the judge will accept.