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Federal Plea Agreement Sentencing Guidelines

Do the Feds Give Plea Deals?

Charged with a federal crime? Needless to say, there’s a lot at stake. Your freedom, future, and reputation could suffer from a mere accusation, let alone, a conviction. Unlike state crimes, federal crimes are of national interest. These offenses may occur on federally-owned property, cross state lines, target the government, or violate federal law. That said, federal crimes consist of offenses such as:

  • Conspiracy
  • Fraud
  • Child pornography
  • RICO violations
  • Drug crimes
  • Internet crimes
  • Human trafficking

If you are accused of committing a federal offense, don’t lose hope. When the US government has a strong case against a defendant, they tend to offer a plea deal to avoid trial and reduce the defendant’s sentence. That’s right — many prosecutors do, in fact, want to avoid trial just as much as defendants, believe it or not. This is because plea bargains allow prosecutors to reach mutually beneficial agreements with defendants, allowing them to save time and scarce resources, as well as improve their conviction rates.

For instance, a federal plea bargain may require you to cooperate in the prosecution of another defendant, allowing a prosecutor to increase their chances of achieving a conviction in exchange for giving you a reduced sentence. A prosecutor may ask you to plead guilty to a lesser charge than what you were originally accused of, which also improves their conviction rate while allowing you a more favorable outcome than you otherwise would receive at trial.

Ultimately, plea bargains are a win-win for both sides. Trials are time-consuming, demanding, uncertain, and expensive for defendants and the government. Thus, plea bargains offer a way out for all parties involved.

What Are the 3 Types of Plea Bargains?

Although plea agreements are common, they are not guaranteed. As we mentioned before, however, federal prosecutors are eager to avoid trial as defendants are. With this in mind, the US government offers three types of plea agreements:

Charge agreements: This type of plea bargain requires the defendant to plead guilty to a crime that’s less serious than the crime they were charged with. For instance, if you were charged with murder, the prosecution might drop the murder charge and have you plead guilty to manslaughter, a “step down” from murder. As such, you would get a lighter sentence.

Sentence agreements: In this case, the defendant will plead guilty to the crime they were originally charged with, but in exchange for their plea, the prosecutor will impose a lighter sentence than what the defendant would have been sentenced to at trial.

Count agreements: Count bargaining is effective for defendants facing multiple charges because this type of plea deal allows the defendant to plead guilty to fewer charges. For examples, if you were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon, and trespassing, a prosecutor may drop your assault charge and in exchange for a plea for the remaining two charges.

Federal Cooperation Plea Agreement

A prosecutor may arrange what’s called a cooperation plea agreement, which requires the defendant to provide substantial assistance in helping the federal government reach its bottom line in exchange for a lesser sentence. The bottom line is almost always achieving a criminal conviction.

That said, a prosecutor must consider several elements in determining whether a person’s cooperation is in the public’s interest. They will weigh factors such as:

  • The importance of the investigation or prosecution to an effective program of law enforcement
  • The value of the person’s cooperation to the investigation or prosecution
  • The person’s relative culpability in connection with the offense(s) being investigated or prosecuted and their criminal history
  • The victims’ interests

That said, a prosecutor may ask a defendant to help with a criminal investigation, testify against another, and/or provide information that could lead to an arrest. If you live up to your side of the bargain, then the prosecutor will file a 5K1.1 letter, which requests the courts to impose a lower sentence as a result of your cooperation. However, you are not guaranteed a lower sentence.

How Many Federal Criminal Cases Go to Trial?

Rarely do federal criminal cases go to trial. According to Pew Research Center, only 2% of nearly 80,000 defendants in federal criminal cases in 2018 went to trial. 90% of those defendants pleaded guilty and the other 8% got their cases dismissed. Pew also reports that of the 2% of federal criminal defendants who did go to trial in 2018, most were found guilty.

Am I Eligible for a Plea Deal?

Not all federal criminal defendants are eligible for a plea deal. Prosecutors will weigh several factors to determine whether or not to enter into a plea deal. These factors include:

  • The defendant’s willingness to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution of others
  • The defendant’s criminal history
  • The nature and seriousness of the offense(s) charged
  • The defendant’s remorse and their willingness to assume responsibility for their conduct
  • The desirability of prompt and certain disposition of the case
  • The likelihood of obtaining a conviction at trial
  • The probable effect on witnesses
  • The probable sentence or other consequences if the defendant is convicted
  • The public interest in having the case tried rather than disposed of by a guilty plea
  • The expense of trial and appeal
  • The need to avoid delay in the disposition of other pending cases
  • The interests of the victim, including the effect on their right to restitution

These factors for consideration are merely considerations. They do not guarantee that a prosecutor will enter into a plea agreement with a defendant. However, given the fact that defendants hardly ever go to trial, the chances of obtaining a plea deal for federal charges are significant.

What Factors Do Prosecutors Use in Determining Sentences?

If a federal prosecutor finds it appropriate to arrange a plea deal with a defendant, they will need to determine a proper sentence. The statutory punishment for a federal crime is generally higher than a federal prosecutor would impose in a plea. However, that doesn’t imply that the prosecutor will always recommend a light sentence, either.

When making a sentencing recommendation, the prosecutor will conduct an individualized assessment of the facts and circumstances of each case and the history and characteristics of the defendant. They should not, however, inappropriately consider the defendant’s race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, or political association, activities, or beliefs.

Instead, prosecutors should seek a sentence that does the following:

  • Reflects the seriousness of the offense
  • Promotes respect for the law
  • Provides just punishment
  • Affords deterrence to future criminal conduct by the defendant and others
  • Protects the public from further crimes committed by the defendant
  • Avoids unwarranted sentencing disparities between offenders with similar records who’ve been convicted of similar conduct
  • Offers the defendant an opportunity for effective rehabilitation
  • Considers the need for the defendant to provide restitution to any victims of the offense

Former Prosecutors Fighting Federal Charges

As you can see, much consideration goes into whether a defendant can get a plea deal and if so, the terms of the agreement. Although most defendants who are charged with federal crimes enter into a plea, it’s important to negotiate for favorable terms. Simply obtaining a plea deal does not suffice, especially since most defendants in federal court get a plea. That said, you want a team of high-caliber lawyers who know how both sides of the system operation. You want our attorneys at Appel & Morse.

As former prosecutors with over 40 years of combined legal experience, we have what it takes to negotiate for the best possible outcome in your case. Wait no longer to fight for your freedom!

Contact us at (805) 467-6060 to get started.