Plea Agreements, Deals & Bargaining in Federal Court

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Most federal criminal cases never go to trial. Instead, they end with a formal plea bargain between the defendant and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The defendant agrees to plead guilty and in exchange the prosecution agrees to either drop some charges or agrees to recommend a shorter sentence for the defendant. The prosecution normally likes to enter into plea agreements because it saves the time and expense of going to trial and it guarantees a conviction. A defendant might want to enter a plea agreement in several circumstances:

  • The defendant knows that he or she is guilty and wants to bargain for a lesser sentence.
  • The defendant is innocent but entering a plea agreement is easier and less time-consuming than going to trial.
  • The defendant can cooperate with prosecutors in other cases.

Generally, the plea agreement can reduce your risk of a longer sentence. Not all federal cases can be easily defended, and prosecutors at the federal level usually have ample evidence against you before the trial begins.

Plea bargains in federal cases are full of hazards, as the rules of Federal Criminal Procedures make sure that you will not have access to much of the discovery in the case. It is common for federal prosecutors to offer little in return for what they demand from you. For instance, it is common for the prosecutor to demand that any plea deal include a waiver of your right to appeal the sentence. The prosecution also may want you to admit not to just the crime but to other conduct that can be used to enhance your sentence. Further, prosecutors may ask that you agree to a sentence within federal sentencing guidelines.

You should know that most federal cases these days are decided by plea bargain. Only 8% of all federal criminal charges in 2013 were dismissed, and more than 97% were completed through plea bargain. And only 3% went to trial. The plea bargain often will decide the sentence that is given to you. Many defendants decide to go for a plea bargain because the odds are high that if you are convicted, the sentence will be much worse. On many federal charges, such as ones involving drugs, there are harsh minimum sentences that the judge must impose. You could be offered a plea bargain where you would ‘only’ spend five years in federal prison. A conviction, however, could have a much harsher sentence of 20 years or more. There are documented cases of drug offenders who were offered 15 year plea deals and rejected them, and now serve life in federal prison.

The Guilty Defendant

Assistant U.S. Attorneys rarely content themselves with filing minimal charges against a criminal defendant. Instead, they tend to file for every possible criminal charge that they think might possibly be applicable. If the defendant is convicted of multiple charges, then he or she is likely to spend more time in prison. Someone who has been charged with five crimes, for example, might choose to plead guilty to one or two of them in exchange for the other charges being dropped. In other cases, guilty defendants might want to enter a plea agreement in exchange for lighter sentences. If a charge would normally carry a 10 year sentence, it might be a good idea to plead guilty if the prosecutor will agree to a five year sentence.

The key to this type of plea bargain for the defendant is to get the best possible deal. The best way to do that is to make going to trial riskier for the Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case. The more likely the prosecutor thinks a jury would return a not guilty verdict, the better deal the prosecutor is likely to accept. Defendants should consult with their attorneys and make sure that the attorneys have any information that might tend to sway the prosecutor.

The Innocent Defendant

The first instinct for most people who are not guilty of the crime they are accused of committing is to fight. Most people do not want to plead guilty to something that they did not do. However, in some cases it can be appropriate for innocent people to plead guilty. The criminal process is long, time-consuming and uncertain. If the prosecution is willing to accept a deal that ends the process quickly, it can be a good idea to accept the bargain. However, this should only be done after consulting with an experienced defense attorney. Pleading guilty can have many ramifications that need to be carefully considered. It should not normally be done just to get the process over with so the defendant can move on with his or her life.

Cooperating With Prosecutors

This is a situation that occurs all the time in popular movies and television shows. A defendant who has information about other crimes or co-defendants might choose to plead guilty, tell the prosecution what he knows and testify against others in exchange for a lighter sentence. This can be a good option in some cases, but again, an attorney needs to be consulted. The defendant who wishes to enter into this type of plea agreement will need to cooperate fully and needs to be aware of the possible consequences of the arrangement.

After the Agreement

When the prosecution and defense have agreed to a plea bargain, they will write it down and present it to the judge. At this point, the defendant does not change his or her plea to guilty. The defendant has only offered to do so. The judge can either accept or reject the plea agreement. If the judge accepts it, then the criminal proceedings are mostly over. The defendant pleads guilty and is sentenced as arranged. If the judge does not accept the plea agreement, then the case proceeds as normal unless a different agreement is made and presented to the judge. Usually, judges accept plea agreements. They are only rejected if the judge feels that they are unreasonable or not in the interests of justice.

Tips If You Are Considering a Plea Agreement

If you are considering a plea bargain on a federal charge, you would be well served to keep the following tips in mind:


Even if you take a plea deal, you may be able to appeal the outcome of the case. This might be barred with an appeal waiver, but this is not always true. A notice of appeal on a federal charge case has to be filed within 14 days of the judgement. The attorney who was representing you at the sentencing has to talk to you about the benefits and risks of appealing, and whether you have any grounds to do so. This type of case is known as a direct appeal, and it will be heard by a federal court of appeals for the part of the country where you were sentenced. If you lose the appeal, the defendant may appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Eligibility for RDAP

Federal prisoners who have a history of drug abuse within a year of their arrest can generally be accepted into the Federal Bureau of Prisons Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). If you complete RDAP, you can get a reduction of your sentence of up to one year. Prisoners who have a violent history may not be able to get time off their sentence, but they may still opt to participate in RDAP. If you are interviewed by a federal probation officer, you should be honest in disclosing any alcohol or drug abuse in your past. Having this type of abuse documented is important to be eligible for RDAP.

Judge Recommendations

Federal judges may recommend that you be put in a certain prison or given certain programming in the prison. This can affect where you do your time. As such, if you have been charged with a sex related federal offense, it is recommended that your attorney request the judge make a recommendation that you are put in a Sex Offender Management Program prison. This is usually a better option for sex related offenders than a regular prison at the federal level. Also, if you qualify for RDAP, your attorney should request the judge recommend you be placed into RDAP. Your defense attorney may also try for a recommendation that you get placed in a halfway house and/or home confinement placement.

Do Not Talk to Informants

All federal criminal defendants should be aware of only talking about their case with their defense attorney. This is because prisons are filled with people who try to get their peers to talk about their case so they can testify against them and get lenient treatment in their own case. The best way to avoid this problem is to not talk about case specifics ever with anyone other than your attorney in private. Be very wary of people you do not know asking questions about your case.

Appeal Waivers

US Attorney offices usually have an appeal waiver in their plea bargain. This can prevent you from raising many matters on appeal, including retroactive application of reduced sentencing guidelines. If you are offered a plea bargain with an appellate waiver, you should talk to your attorney to determine if the waiver can be thrown out or reduced in scope.

Following these tips can help you to spend as little time in federal prison as possible.


Plea agreements are a familiar concept for many people. They are simply bargains that end the criminal process early. While there are many different reasons that defendants might want to enter into a plea bargain, an attorney should always be consulted about whether an agreement is appropriate in an individual case.


  • Why Innocent People Plead Guilty. (2014). Retrieved from