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Federal Plea Bargains: Not Always Such a Great Deal

What Is a Federal Plea Bargain?

A federal plea bargain is a legal agreement entered into during a criminal proceeding, where the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge or to one of several charges in exchange for more lenient sentencing or dismissal of other charges.

This process is predominantly orchestrated by the prosecution and defense attorneys, significantly expediting the judicial process by avoiding a full-fledged trial. However, it’s important to note that while plea bargains can offer certain advantages, they may not always be the best choice for the defendant.

Because a substantial percentage of my criminal defense work in Boston involves federal clients and federal charges, it’s no surprise that NPR recently reported that the American Bar Association found “in any given year, 98% of criminal cases in the federal courts end with a plea bargain”.

The Wall Street Journal attributes some of the increase to the fact that the number of federal defendants has nearly doubled as a result of “crackdowns” on crimes “ranging from drug trafficking to fraud.” The paper hypothesizes that the built-in reward system for accepting responsibility and pleading guilty in advance of trial afforded under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) is a significant catalyst behind the increased prevalence of plea bargains.

The practice has become so routine that SCOTUS has issued related opinions holding that effective assistance of counsel is a constitutionally mandated protection, not only at the trial phase but also in connection with pre-trial plea negotiations. (See the Missouri v. Frye, Lafler v. Cooper blog.)

Concerns About Federal Plea Deals

While this might seem like a win for all involved, in some cases, there remains a real concern that it could, in the words of Justice Antonin Scalia, “effectively compel[s] an innocent defendant to avoid a massive risk by pleading guilty to a lesser offense.”

There is no question this concern is both accurate and true. Federal prosecutors do take advantage of a plethora of charging options in order to leverage favorable results that are less about making sure that “justice is done” and more about presenting defendants with no-win options they may not be able to refuse or increasing bottom-line prosecution statistics.

Pleas can also potentially allow misconduct to occur in law enforcement or governmental agencies, as these offenses might only come to light after defense attorneys obtain evidence and witness interviews.

Should You Choose a Federal Plea Deal?

Each case must be assessed on its individual strengths and weaknesses; and while the potential Guidelines calculations, along with the presiding Judge’s sentencing proclivities, must always be considered, electing to resolve a particular case short of trial is not necessarily always in the client’s best interest. To be sure, expanded charging options have increased the government’s ability to leverage pleas from risk-averse defendants. Still, even as amended, federal laws are idiosyncratic enough and often narrower in terms of definition than state crimes are. Because of this, federal prosecutors sometimes wind up trying to force "square pegs into round holes" in terms of attempting to apply certain fact patterns to specific federal violations. This can result in theoretical infirmities that can, and should, be exploited to a defendant’s advantage in front of federal juries.

If you are charged with a federal crime, be sure to hire an attorney who is willing to weigh, assess, and discuss your options based on your specific circumstances and develop a robust strategy. Our legal team has extensive experience handling federal cases, and we are here to advocate for you. Call us at (617) 500-0252 to schedule a consultation. 

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