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Federal Plea Bargains

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Plea bargains are an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant in which the defendant pleads guilty in order to receive a lesser sentence, or pleads guilty to a lesser crime. Plea bargains have a variety of pros and cons for everyone involved. For the courts, they promote judicial economy by resolving cases without the time and resources needed to conduct a criminal trial. For defendants, not only do they usually result in a lesser sentence or a less serious offense on their criminal record, but they also allow for greater certainty in the outcome.

While the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure recognize and codify the concept of federal plea bargains, there are various factors that make them rare in federal cases. First, due to the provisions in the United States Sentencing Guideline, a federal prosecutor has less leeway to offer plea deals. In addition, many federal offenses carry mandatory sentences, which don't allow any room for plea bargaining. Finally, statutes codifying many federal offenses expressly prohibit the application of plea arrangements.

Laws Governing Federal Plea Bargains

Federal criminal practice is governed by Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Part II. Chapter 221 addresses arraignments, pleas, and trial. The U.S. Attorney's Manual also contains several provisions addressing the negotiation of plea agreements. For example, Chapter 9-16.300 states that plea agreements should "honestly reflect the totality and seriousness of the defendant's conduct," and any departure must be consistent with Sentencing Guideline provisions.

The Justice Department's official policy is to stipulate only to those facts that accurately represent the defendant's conduct. Plea agreements require the approval of the assistant attorney general if counts are being dismissed, if defendant companies are being promised no further prosecution, or if particular sentences are being recommended.

Federal Plea Bargains: Prohibitions and Restrictions

Aside from legal considerations as to the knowing or voluntary nature of a plea, there are other restrictions or prohibitions on the opportunity to plea bargain. In federal practice, U.S. attorneys aren't allowed to make plea agreements that prejudice civil or tax liability without the express agreement of all affected divisions or agencies. Moreover, no attorney for the government may seek, or threaten to seek, the death penalty solely for the purpose of obtaining a more desirable negotiating position for a plea bargain.

Attorneys are also instructed not to consent to an "Alford plea" where a defendant essentially maintains their innocence while pleading guilty to a charge. However, federal government attorneys can accept such pleas in the most unusual circumstances and only with the recommendation of assistant attorneys general in the subject matter at issue.

In any case where a defendant has tendered a guilty plea but denies that they committed the offense, the attorney for the government should make an offer of proof of all facts known to the government to support the conclusion that the defendant is in fact guilty. Similarly, U.S. attorneys are instructed to require an explicit stipulation of all facts of a defendant's fraud against the United States (tax fraud, Medicare/Medicaid fraud, etc.) when agreeing to plea bargain.

Federal Plea Bargains: Additional Considerations

The process of negotiating plea bargains in federal court, and the restrictions that apply, can be similar to the negotiation process in state court. However, it's important to note that your state's attorney general may have additional or different restrictions on state prosecutors negotiating plea deals in state court. This could have an impact on your case, depending on the charges you're facing and where you're being prosecuted.

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

Successful plea bargaining, especially in the federal court system, requires special skills and experience. A criminal defense attorney who practices in your jurisdiction is your best bet to getting a fair deal. If you or someone you love is 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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