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.

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.


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.

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