Plea Agreements

In almost every criminal case that is filed in federal court, the United States will offer a Defendant a plea agreement. Defense attorneys are required to run through any plea offer with a client. They cannot simply accept a plea on behalf of a client.

Clients and their families need to understand that our office will attempt to get a plea on the table for every single client that we represent. Any good defense attorney should be working to get a plea offer for a client. This does not mean that we are not aggressively building a defense in a case. What we are trying to do by getting a plea offer for a client is to take a look at how strong of a case that the United States has while also learning which of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines apply in a case.

I Want to Turn Down a Plea Offer to “Get a Better Offer”

In some federal cases the first plea offer from the United States is going to be the only offer that is put on the table. This means holding out for a better offer, as some clients are told while they are incarcerated (by other inmates) is not an actual strategy that will work.

In cases that are single count indictments or that involve more simple facts, there is not much wiggle room to attempt to obtain a better plea offer. On occasion a felony case can be negotiated into a misdemeanor but these are all very case specific. Our office will always review the plea that is offered and will discuss with a client whether we think a better plea can be obtained. This can also be a point where a client can make an informed decision about taking a case to trial or accepting a plea.

What Are the Benefits of Accepting a Plea Offer?

In federal court, a criminal defendant typically gets a shorter sentence by accepting a plea than they would if they go to trial and lose. While this seems counter-intuitive to the right to trial guaranteed by the United States Constitution, there are various provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that allow for a lower sentence by accepting responsibility for what happened. In certain cases a Defendant can also earn a Fast Track Departure that also lowers the sentencing guideline range. In some cases a plea offer also is a plea of guilty to only some of the counts contained in the charging document so the others are dismissed. If someone loses at trial on all counts they can end up with a longer sentence.

The other benefit to accepting a plea is that it eliminates the risk of trial. There is not a single attorney on earth who can guarantee the results at trial. Even the strongest case can be a loser while sometimes a weak case can be a winner. Jury trials are unpredictable and a plea eliminates this unpredictability.

Will My Sentence Be Guaranteed If I Accept a Plea Offer in Federal Court?

No. There is almost never a guarantee that a certain length of sentence will be rendered by a judge as a result of a plea agreement. Most pleas in the Southern District of California state specifically that sentencing is up to the District Judge and that the Sentencing Guidelines are only advisory, not mandatory. Plea agreements can contain very useful recommendations from the U.S. Attorney that can assist with sentencing arguments, but they never are a guarantee of an outcome.

What Are the Federal Sentencing Guidelines

The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines provide guidance to a judge that is attempting to make a decision on sentencing. The guidelines are not binding on a judge. The guidelines came into effect in the 80s and were put in place in order to attempt to prevent sentencing disparity among Defendants charged for similar crimes. While a judge is not bound to follow these guidelines, they are taken into account in every single case.

How Do I Accept a Plea Offer in Federal Court?

Just signing the plea is not enough. A Change of Plea hearing or plea hearing will be scheduled where a judge will question a Defendant about the terms of a plea agreement. A Defendant will also be advised of all of the rights that they are giving up by taking a plea. When someone pleads guilty in federal court, they typically give up the following rights:

  • Right to a jury trial;
  • Right to confront and cross-examine witnesses;
  • Right to be assisted by an attorney at trial;
  • Right to testify (or not testify) on their own behalf;
  • Right to to suppress evidence; and
  • Right to impeachment evidence.

During the Change of Plea Hearing a judge will also confirm that a Defendant is accepting a plea voluntarily. This means that they Defendant is not being forced into taking a plea by anyone and that the Defendant is pleading guilty because they want to plead guilty.

Before any Change of Plea Hearing an attorney from our office will meet with a Defendant and their family to discuss the entire process. It is also very important that a Defendant reviews the entire plea agreement and all terms that are set forth in the agreement.

Typically a Defendant also will stipulate or lay out the factual basis for a plea. Put another way, a Defendant not only admits to being guilty but usually they have to tell the judge the facts that make them guilty. The facts are usually pretty bare bones and only have to match the elements of the crime that is charged.

Will I Be Sent Straight to Jail If I Plead Guilty?

Assuming someone has posted bond, there are occasions that a judge will remand a Defendant to custody once they plead guilty. This is highly dependent on the judge and the type of crime that is involved.

Get More Information From an Experienced San Diego Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

For more information or to speak to an attorney about your federal criminal defense case, call Rist Law Office today at (619) 840-2506. Our office has helped thousands of clients with criminal defense matters and we will take the time to discuss all aspects of a case with a potential client and their family so that they can make informed choices with how to move forward.

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