Plea Agreement

Plea Agreements in Federal Criminal Cases

In the context of a federal criminal case, a plea agreement is essentially a contract. You, the defendant, will agree to give up your right to trial in exchange for something beneficial, such as a lighter sentence.

This means you agree not to challenge the federal criminal charges by calling witnesses. It also means you will plead guilty to some crime, but not always the one you were charged for. In most federal plea agreements, the primary question is, what is “something beneficial?” Primarily, it refers to a particular sentence.

Plea agreements contain an “agreement” to the applicable sentencing guideline range, the recommended sentence that the judge should impose. The guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, meaning the federal judge can set a lower or higher sentence.

Many plea agreements prohibit the defendant from arguing for a sentence lower than the guidelines but don't impose the same restriction on the federal government. Further, in most jurisdictions, a federal defendant must forfeit their right to appeal the sentence.

This is important because the plea agreement does not bind a federal judge, who could accept the plea agreement, determine the guidelines, and impose a sentence up to the statutory maximum of the crime if they want to.

For example, most common federal offenses carry a statutory maximum of 20 years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, such as bank fraud, wire fraud, drug trafficking, conspiracy, etc.  

Thus, in federal criminal cases, the government will require the defendant to agree to specific guidelines and waive their right to a jury trial, call witnesses, and contest the charges in exchange for an uncertain outcome.

Suppose that the outcome is bad in the end. In that case, you can't file an appeal. However, in reality, most federal plea agreements will result in something beneficial for a defendant, but having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is crucial to have the best chance of a favorable outcome.

Plea Agreement – Quick Facts

There are some essential facts you should know about plea agreements, also called “plea bargains” in federal criminal cases, such as the following:

  • Plea bargains are a formal agreement where a defendant will plead guilty for reduced charges or receive a lesser sentence.
  • Plea agreements provide benefits for both parties in the case.
  • The closer a federal defendant gets to trial, the better the plea offer is.
  • Federal prosecutors can resolve the case without a trial.
  • Federal judges still have broad discretion when imposing a sentence.
  • The sentencing range agreed upon by the federal prosecutor is only a recommendation to the judge.
  • Federal plea bargains are often lengthy written documents that detail the defendant's admissions, legal rights waived, and the agreement.

What is the Plea Agreement Process?

After the federal prosecutor and defense lawyer agree to resolve the federal criminal case through a negotiated plea, the government will write a draft to be signed.

Often, the negotiations will be lengthy and hotly debated. Typically, the first matter in the federal plea agreement is the charges to which the defendant agrees to plead guilty. 

These charges might be the initial charges in the indictment but could differ as part of the negotiations. Sometimes, the defendant will have to admit specific enhancements.

The agreement's factual basis portion can potentially impact federal sentencing. Here, there is an agreement to a specific factual scenario that lays out the defendant's illegal conduct in significant detail, such as the following:

  • What did the defendant know?
  • What was their intent?
  • How did the defendant plan to benefit from the illegal activity?
  • Stipulations about the loss amount caused by the crime.

In white-collar crimes, the loss is often a crucial factor that can change the sentence the defendant will receive based on an advisory application of the United States sentencing guidelines. 

When an agreement can't be reached on a specific amount of loss, they will usually stipulate a range and then reserve the right to argue for a lower or higher amount at sentencing, leaving the decision in the hands of the judge.

What About Waiver of Appeal Rights?

Most federal plea agreements will have language that will waive certain appellate rights for a defendant.  For example, the government will agree not to appeal the sentence as long as it's over a certain amount of months. The defendant will agree not to appeal the sentence as long as it's under a certain amount of months.

In this manner, through a limited mutual waiver of appeal, both sides will agree that the judgment will be final unless the federal judge imposes a sentence significantly outside the agreement's range.

This sentencing range agreement is crucial because the sentence expectations of the defendant or prosecutor do not bind federal judges. In other words, judges have the discretion to depart lower or higher of the guidelines range.

What are the Sentencing Factors?

The plea agreement will also include details about which sentencing factors will apply under the advisory sentencing guidelines, which is a crucial part of the plea bargain. Both sides will typically stipulate to the following:

  • Base offense-level enhancements for offense-specific conduct,
  • Criminal history category based on a defendant's prior record and
  • Any appropriate departures or variances they can agree upon.

Notably, once again, the judge is not bound by these determinations because they are not part of the plea agreement. However, this is not to suggest the judge does not consider the deal as they were typically part of the initial discussions that included information about the evidence in the case.

What is the Purpose of a Plea Agreement?

For the government, a plea bargain ensures a criminal conviction and an acceptable range of punishments. For defendants, it gives them some degree of certainty in resolving their case.

Plea Agreements in Federal Criminal Cases
A federal plea bargain is usually an agreement for a guilty plea in exchange for a lighter sentence.

For the federal court, a plea agreement can ensure that both sides have reached a reasonable solution. They will avoid the time and expense of a federal trial. At the core of a federal plea agreement is giving up something in exchange for something else.

Most federal criminal convictions result from some guilty plea, meaning a federal trial is uncommon. Most federal prosecutors will initiate a conservation to enter a potential plea bargain.

The strength of the evidence is a crucial factor in their decision to reach out to the defendant and also for plea negotiations. Often, they will charge the most severe federal offense to motivate a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge in an agreement.

Through plea bargains, prosecutors can get a guilty plea without a trial. In exchange, defendants will usually receive a significantly reduced federal prison sentence.

Suppose you are under a federal criminal investigation or indicted for a federal offense. In that case, you need to contact a federal criminal defense lawyer to review the case details to improve your chances of a favorable outcome. Contact us for a free case evaluation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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