Federal Plea Bargains

The prosecutor recommends the defendant's criminal charges to the judge. If a defendant accepts a plea deal, the federal judge determines their sentence at a sentencing hearing. The judge doesn't have to agree with the prosecutor's recommendation.

The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allow for plea bargains, but they're rare in federal cases. Under United States Sentencing Guidelines, a federal prosecutor has less leeway to offer plea deals than state prosecutors. Many federal offenses also carry mandatory sentences. These sentences don't allow any room for plea bargaining.

This article discusses plea bargains in federal criminal cases. It summarizes the plea bargaining process before examining laws and guidelines for federal plea bargains.

Federal Plea Bargains Explained

Plea bargains are an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant. The defendant usually pleads guilty to certain charges. In exchange, they usually receive a lesser sentence or plead guilty to a lesser crime. Defendants often accept a plea deal to avoid minimum sentences imposed by some federal crimes.

A defendant's criminal charges and any prior criminal convictions play a significant role in plea bargaining. A first-time offender charged with a misdemeanor could avoid jail time. A repeat offender charged with a felony likely will not receive as good a plea bargain.

Plea bargains have various pros and cons for everyone involved. The criminal justice system favors plea agreements. Over 90% of criminal defendants accept plea offers. For the courts, plea bargains promote judicial efficiency. They resolve cases quickly and eliminate criminal trials from the courts' dockets.

For defendants, plea bargains often result in a more lenient sentence or a less serious offense on their criminal record. They may also save money on private attorney's fees by forgoing a trial.

Defendants who accept plea bargains waive several constitutional rights. For example, they waive their right to a public jury trial. They also waive the right to confront witnesses brought against them. Critics of plea bargains argue that plea bargains are coercive. They say innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid a lengthy potential prison sentence.

Types of Plea Bargaining

There are several types of plea bargaining methods. In general, these methods include the following:

  • Charge bargaining involves negotiating which charges the prosecutor recommends to the judge. For example, suppose the government charges someone with aggravated assault of a police officer. The prosecutor may offer a plea deal where they dismiss the greater charge and recommend a reduced charge, like simple assault, in exchange for a guilty plea.
  • Sentence bargaining involves a prosecutor recommending a shorter prison sentence to the judge. For example, a federal assault conviction carries an eight-year prison sentence. The prosecutor may offer a plea deal that reduces the prison sentence to five years plus probation.
  • Fact bargaining occurs when a prosecutor and defendant stipulate specific facts of the crime. For example, in a federal assault case, the prosecutor and defendant may agree that the defendant's actions only amounted to simple assault rather than aggravated assault. The judge considers these stipulated facts when they determine the appropriate sentence.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a defendant the right to an attorney. An attorney can provide critical legal advice on plea negotiations. If the government has charged you with a crime, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney.

Laws Governing Federal Plea Bargains

Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Part II, governs federal criminal law and procedure. Chapter 221 addresses arraignments, pleas, and trial.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the U.S. Attorney's Manual, and the federal sentencing guidelines also address plea agreement negotiations. These provisions include the following, among others:

Plea agreements should honestly reflect the totality and seriousness of the defendant's conduct.

The court must inform the defendant that they can't withdraw from the plea bargain. For a defendant, this means they can accept the plea deal, but the judge has the discretion to accept or reject the bargain. Once the judge imposes the sentence, it is binding.

If a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for lesser charges, the judge may still consider the greater charges when determining an appropriate sentence. They will consider whether the remaining charges adequately reflect the seriousness of the actual offense behavior. A prosecutor's recommendations don't bind the judge.

If a judge rejects a plea agreement, the judge must inform the defendant why they rejected it. The judge may allow the defendant to withdraw after the rejection. If the defendant chooses not to withdraw, the judge must advise them they may face a less favorable sentence than the rejected agreement contemplated.

Consider reading FindLaw's articles on Plea Bargains and Withdrawing a Guilty Plea After Sentencing for more information.

Exceptions and Restrictions

There are other restrictions on plea bargains in a federal case. In general, U.S. attorneys cannot offer plea agreements that prejudice civil or tax liability. They may do so only if all affected divisions or agencies offer consent. Government attorneys also can't seek, or threaten to seek, the death penalty to get a better plea negotiating position.

U.S. Attorneys are also instructed not to consent to an Alford plea. In an Alford Plea, a defendant maintains their innocence but offers to plead guilty. Sometimes U.S. attorneys can accept these pleas, also known as nolo contendere pleas. The Department of Justice allows these pleas in “the most unusual circumstances." An assistant attorney general must approve the plea in these situations.

If a defendant enters a guilty plea but maintains their innocence, the prosecutor must note all facts that show the defendant is guilty. In fraud cases, U.S. attorneys should try to stipulate all the facts indicating the defendant committed fraud against the United States.

Other Considerations

The process of negotiating plea bargains in federal court and the restrictions that apply are similar to the negotiation process in state court, but it's important to note that your state's attorney general may have different restrictions on state prosecutors negotiating plea deals in state court. Depending on your charges and the jurisdiction in which the government prosecutes you, this could impact your case.

Considering a Plea Bargain? Let a Legal Professional Guide the Process

Successful plea bargaining, especially in the federal court system, is complex. A criminal defense attorney who knows federal criminal law is your best bet for getting a fair deal. If you're awaiting trial in federal court, contact a criminal defense lawyer today to discuss federal plea bargains and other aspects of your case.

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