18 Sep 23

How Federal Criminal Lawyers Negotiate with Prosecutors

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Last Updated on: 21st September 2023, 11:03 pm

How Federal Criminal Lawyers Negotiate with Prosecutors

How Federal Criminal Lawyers Negotiate with Prosecutors

Being charged with a federal crime can be an incredibly stressful and frightening experience. The stakes are high, and the federal criminal justice system can seem impenetrable to those who lack experience with it. That’s why having an experienced federal criminal defense attorney on your side is so important.

One of the most critical roles your attorney will play is negotiating with federal prosecutors on your behalf. Federal prosecutors have an enormous amount of power and discretion when it comes to pursuing charges and recommending sentences. Your attorney’s job is to advocate for you every step of the way, including during the negotiation process.

The Basics of Plea Bargaining

The vast majority of federal criminal cases—over 90%—end in plea bargains rather than going to trial. This is because both prosecutors and defense attorneys have incentives to resolve cases through negotiated plea agreements.

For prosecutors, plea bargains ensure convictions and save government resources spent on lengthy trials. For defense attorneys, plea bargains provide the opportunity to secure lesser charges or lighter sentences for their clients.

During plea negotiations, your attorney will meet with the federal prosecutor assigned to your case. Both sides will discuss the evidence and charges, and negotiate over what plea deal may be acceptable.

Common components of federal plea bargains include:

  • Pleading guilty to lesser charges
  • Agreeing to a sentencing recommendation
  • Providing cooperation against other defendants
  • Waiving appeal rights

If a deal is struck, you will still need to formally enter a guilty plea before a federal judge. However, the judge typically accepts the terms of the negotiated plea agreement.

Strategies for Negotiation

Experienced federal criminal defense lawyers employ various strategies during plea negotiations to secure the best possible outcome for their client. Here are some examples:

  • Highlight mitigating circumstances – Your attorney may point to facts that cast your actions in a more sympathetic light, such as mental health issues, family circumstances, or a minor role in the alleged crime.
  • Challenge the strength of the evidence – If the case against you has weaknesses, your attorney can argue why the prosecution may lose at trial, giving them incentive to offer a better deal.
  • Provide cooperation – Agreeing to provide testimony or information about others involved in the criminal activity may persuade prosecutors to reduce charges.
  • Appeal to prosecutorial priorities – Your attorney may argue that resources would be better spent on more serious cases and that a plea would serve the interests of justice.
  • Suggest alternatives to incarceration – Proposals like house arrest, community service, fines, or rehabilitation programs could secure a more lenient sentence recommendation.

These tactics aim to convince the prosecutor that a plea agreement is preferable to taking the case all the way to trial. But it’s a delicate dance – your attorney must demonstrate willingness to go to trial if negotiations fail to produce an acceptable bargain.

When Plea Bargains Are Not Available

While most federal cases end in plea deals, they are not always offered by prosecutors. Certain types of cases are more likely to go to trial, including:

  • Highly publicized cases
  • Cases involving violent crimes or large drug quantities
  • Cases with defendants who are leaders of criminal organizations
  • Cases where prosecutors want to set a public example

If you are charged with serious federal crimes like murder, terrorism, large-scale drug trafficking, or child exploitation, the government may refuse to negotiate a plea deal.

High-ranking elected officials or judges may also not be offered bargains because of concerns about public trust in institutions. And for certain crimes like air piracy, prosecutors need approval from the Attorney General before negotiating a plea.

When pleas are off the table, your attorney’s role becomes focused on preparing the strongest trial defense possible.

The Benefits of Negotiated Pleas

Despite the popular perception that plea bargaining lets criminals get off easy, the truth is more nuanced. Plea agreements can be favorable for defendants in many cases by:

  • Avoiding lengthy pretrial detention
  • Securing lesser charges and lighter sentences
  • Minimizing costs, stress, and publicity of a trial
  • Providing certainty instead of the uncertainty of a trial outcome
  • Letting defendants take responsibility and move on with their lives

Even if a plea deal requires prison time, your attorney may negotiate advantages like getting placed in a minimum security facility closer to family.

That said, some critics argue that plea bargaining gives prosecutors too much leverage and leads innocent people to plead guilty out of fear. There are also concerns that plea deals allow wealthy or connected defendants to negotiate excessively lenient outcomes.

As with most aspects of the law, there are good arguments on both sides. Your attorney’s job is to cut through these debates and secure you the most favorable resolution possible under the circumstances.

Finding the Right Negotiator

The skill and experience of your federal criminal defense lawyer will have a huge impact on the outcome of plea negotiations. When choosing legal representation, look for attorneys with:

  • Extensive experience negotiating federal pleas – Look for a lawyer with a proven track record, not someone trying their first federal case.
  • Good relationships with prosecutors – Prosecutors are more likely to offer good deals to defense lawyers they know and trust.
  • Trial experience – Proven ability to win tough cases gives your lawyer credibility and leverage during bargaining.
  • Reputation for thoroughness – Lawyers who dig deep and turn over every stone have more success.
  • Commitment to the best outcome – The lawyer must be willing to go to trial if a beneficial plea deal can’t be reached.

Be wary of lawyers who seem quick to recommend pleading guilty without thoroughly examining your case and investigating options first. The right negotiator will have your best interests at heart.

Consider Your Options Carefully

If a plea offer is made by prosecutors, your lawyer will fully explain the terms, the benefits, the drawbacks, and your options going forward. The final decision of whether to accept the bargain will be yours after consulting with counsel.

This is an emotional decision with life-changing consequences, so take time to weigh your choices carefully. A plea deal may be your pathway to moving on while avoiding risks and expenses of trial. But rejecting a deal may be right for you if you have strong defenses or if the bargain requires accepting excessive punishment.

Your lawyer is there to advise you, but you must decide how to plead based on your own interests and priorities. Then, your attorney will fight to get the best possible outcome through negotiation or at trial.

With experienced counsel guiding you through the complexities of the federal criminal justice system, you’ll be able to make informed choices during this difficult time. The process won’t be easy, but knowledge and preparation will put you in the best position to secure a just result.