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Plea Bargaining After a Federal Target Letter: Navigating the Process

March 21, 2024

Plea Bargaining After a Federal Target Letter: Navigating the Process

Getting a federal target letter can be really scary. It means the government thinks you did something illegal. But don’t panic! This doesn’t mean you’ll automatically go to jail or prison. You still have options, including trying to make a deal called a “plea bargain.” This article will explain what plea bargaining is, how it works after a target letter, and tips for getting the best deal possible.

What is a Federal Target Letter?

A federal target letter is a letter you get from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal prosecutor saying you’re under investigation for a federal crime [1]. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be charged, but it does mean the government has evidence against you and thinks you may have broken the law.

Target letters often ask you to meet with investigators or prosecutors to talk about the case. They may also ask you to testify to a grand jury. This is the group that decides whether there’s enough evidence to charge you with a crime.

What is Plea Bargaining?

Plea bargaining is when you negotiate with prosecutors to settle a criminal case. You agree to plead guilty in exchange for concessions from them. Common concessions include:

  • Pleading to a lesser charge – For example, pleading to a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
  • Agreeing to a lighter sentence – Such as probation instead of jail time.
  • Having certain charges dropped – Dismissing some charges as part of the deal.

Over 90% of federal criminal cases end with a plea bargain rather than going to trial [2]. Prosecutors often prefer it because it saves time and resources. Defendants often prefer it because the consequences are usually less severe than losing at trial.

Why Plea Bargain After a Target Letter?

There’s a few reasons to consider plea bargaining after getting a target letter:

  • Avoid the maximum sentence – Pleading guilty means you get a lighter sentence than if convicted at trial.
  • Quick resolution – Plea deals resolve cases faster than trials.
  • Certainty in outcome – You know exactly what the penalty will be.
  • Save litigation costs – Trials can be extremely expensive for defendants.

The downside is you have to admit guilt, which becomes part of your permanent criminal record. But in many cases, the benefits outweigh this drawback.

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When to Start Plea Negotiations

There’s no set timeframe for plea bargaining. Defense lawyers usually start talks after:

  • Reviewing evidence prosecutors have against the defendant.
  • Filing motions to suppress evidence or dismiss charges.
  • Conducting independent investigation to build a defense.
  • Assessing the likelihood of winning at trial.

It’s strategic to start plea talks after taking these steps. You’ll have more leverage and make a better deal if prosecutors think you have a decent shot at beating the charges [3].

How Federal Plea Bargaining Works

Plea negotiations typically involve these steps:

  1. Initial offer – Prosecutors make the first plea offer laying out proposed charges, sentencing, etc.
  2. Counteroffer – Defense lawyers respond with their counteroffer, such as lesser charges or jail time.
  3. Negotiation – Both sides go back and forth negotiating details until a tentative deal is reached.
  4. Plea agreement – A formal plea agreement is written up memorializing the exact terms.
  5. Change of plea hearing – A hearing takes place where defendant enters their guilty plea on the record.
  6. Sentencing – The court accepts the plea and later imposes the agreed-upon sentence.

Plea deals aren’t final until the court accepts the guilty plea at the change of plea hearing. Judges aren’t required to follow sentencing recommendations [4].

Tips for Getting the Best Plea Deal

Here’s some tips for getting the best plea bargain possible after a target letter:

  • Hire an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to negotiate for you.
  • Be proactive and reach out to prosecutors to start talks.
  • Highlight weaknesses in the government’s case against you.
  • Offer to cooperate by providing testimony or evidence about others.
  • Get character references to show you in a positive light.
  • Don’t rush into a deal – be willing to walk away.
  • If talks fail, prepare thoroughly for trial.

The most important thing is having a knowledgeable lawyer fighting for your best interests. Don’t try negotiating directly with prosecutors yourself.

What Happens if Plea Bargaining Fails?

If prosecutors won’t offer a plea deal you’re willing to accept, you’ll have to prepare for trial. This involves steps like:

  • Filing motions to get evidence thrown out.
  • Interviewing witnesses you may call to testify.
  • Researching case law that supports your defense.
  • Undergoing practice cross-examinations of government witnesses.
  • Selecting a jury favorable to your case.

Going to trial is risky because you could end up with harsher penalties if convicted. But with an aggressive legal strategy, you may be able to win dismissal or acquittal. Your lawyer can advise if trial is the best option.


Getting a federal target letter can be intimidating. But through skilled plea bargaining, many defendants can get charges reduced and sentences minimized. Hiring experienced counsel right away gives you the best chance of making a deal on favorable terms or building a winning trial strategy.

With smart negotiation and legal moves, the target letter doesn’t have to mean you’re headed straight to prison. There’s still opportunities to fight the allegations and put yourself in a better position. Don’t panic and do something rash – consult with a lawyer to map out a legal battle plan catered to your unique situation.


[1] https://www.birrellcriminaldefense.com/target-letter/the-3-key-steps-after-you-receive-a-target-letter/

[2] https://www.justice.gov/usao/justice-101/pleabargaining

[3] https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/how-plea-bargains-work-basics-29597.html

[4] https://www.justice.gov/archives/jm/criminal-resource-manual-626-plea-agreements-and-sentencing-appeal-waivers

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