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How Do Federal Plea Agreements Work in California?

How Do Federal Plea Agreements Work in California?

Plea bargains can be super confusing, especially when you’re dealing with federal charges in California. Let’s break it down into something simple that anyone can understand.

Basically, a plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor (representing the government) and the defendant (the person charged with the crime). The defendant agrees to plead guilty to some or all of the charges in exchange for a lighter sentence or reduced charges.

Plea bargains are really common in federal cases. Like, really common. Some estimates say that over 90% of federal cases end in a plea bargain rather than going to trial. There’s a few reasons why they’re so popular:

  • Trials are expensive and take a long time. Plea bargains save money and move cases faster.
  • Prosecutors get a guaranteed conviction without the risk of losing at trial.
  • Defendants often get a lighter sentence than if they go to trial and lose.

It’s basically a win-win – the prosecutors get to put a “W” on their record with less work, and the defendant gets less jail time. No brainer, right?

How Do Plea Bargains Work?

Ok, so how does the sausage actually get made? What’s the process for negotiating and accepting a plea bargain in a federal case? Here’s the typical steps:

  1. The prosecutor makes an offer. This usually happens early on, even before charges are filed.
  2. The defense lawyer negotiates back and forth to get the best deal possible.
  3. If a deal is reached, it’s written up as a “plea agreement” that both sides sign.
  4. The defendant pleads guilty at a court hearing under the terms of the agreement.
  5. The judge accepts the plea and sets a sentencing date a few weeks or months later.
  6. At sentencing, the judge gives the agreed upon sentence. Case closed!

Seems simple enough, but there’s a few key things to understand about each step. Let’s break it down.

The Initial Offer

The prosecutor usually makes the first offer, laying out the charges they’re willing to drop or reduce in exchange for a guilty plea. This often happens pre-charge, before the indictment is even filed. Smart move to get a lawyer ASAP if you’re under investigation!

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The initial offer is just a starting point for negotiations. Prosecutors often start high, knowing they can come down later in bargaining. Don’t panic if the first offer seems crazy harsh – that’s normal.

The Negotiation

After the initial offer, the real negotiations kick off. Your lawyer will go back and forth with the prosecutor, angling for the best possible deal under the circumstances. This can take weeks or months.

A few things your lawyer may try to negotiate:

  • Getting charges dropped completely
  • Pleading guilty to a less serious charge
  • Agreeing to a sentencing recommendation, like 3 years instead of 5
  • Avoiding “enhancements” that increase sentences

The better your lawyer, the better deal you’ll probably get. Hire the absolute best lawyer you can afford for federal cases. Your freedom is on the line.

The Written Agreement

If negotiations are successful, the final plea bargain will be written up as a “plea agreement” – basically a contract between you and the government.

Read this carefully! It will spell out exactly what you’re agreeing to plead guilty to, what charges are being dropped or reduced, and any sentencing recommendations. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand.

The Plea Hearing

Once the agreement is signed, the next step is the “plea hearing” where you officially plead guilty in court. The judge will ask you questions to make sure you understand what you’re doing. Be honest – judges don’t like being lied to!

Answer the questions clearly. Don’t try to be too clever or technical. The goal is to get the plea accepted so you can move on to sentencing.

The Sentencing

After the plea is accepted, a sentencing date will be set a few weeks or months later. This gives time for pre-sentence reports and submissions from both sides arguing different sentences.

At sentencing, the judge will impose a sentence based on the plea agreement and federal sentencing guidelines. In most cases the judge sticks to the deal, but not always.

If you feel the sentence is unfair, you may be able to appeal or challenge it later. But you can’t take back your guilty plea, so be very sure before you plead guilty! There’s no going back.

Types of Plea Agreements

Not all plea bargains are created equal. There’s a few different types of plea agreements in the federal system:

(A) Charge Bargaining

This is where the prosecutor agrees to drop some charges or reduce the charges to less serious ones. For example, pleading guilty to 1 count of wire fraud instead of 3 counts. Or pleading to a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
Charge bargaining limits your exposure and can really reduce potential prison time.

(B) Sentence Bargaining

Here the charges stay the same, but the prosecutor recommends a lighter sentence or agrees not to pursue enhancements. For example, recommending 3 years instead of 5 years, or agreeing not to file for a “career criminal” enhancement.
Judges aren’t required to follow these recommendations, but often give them strong consideration.

(C) Fact Bargaining

This involves bargaining over the facts of the offense, especially relevant conduct used to calculate sentencing guidelines. For example, agreeing to say the fraud amount was $100k instead of $200k, resulting in a lower guideline range.
Judges frown on excessive fact bargaining, but some is common as part of the overall deal.

(D) Open Pleas

An “open plea” means pleading guilty without any agreement in place. You throw yourself at the mercy of the court. No charges dropped, no recommendations, nada. The judge can impose any legal sentence they want.
Open pleas are rare in federal cases, but make sense if you expect mercy from the judge and have nothing to bargain with.

The Pros and Cons of Plea Bargains

Plea bargains may seem like a no-brainer, but there’s some downsides too. It’s about weighing the risks vs rewards. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons:


  • Avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences if charges are reduced
  • Predictability – you know your sentence up front
  • Speedy resolution avoids languishing pre-trial in jail
  • Saves stress, costs, and uncertainty of trial
  • Shows acceptance of responsibility, which judges appreciate


  • Admitting guilt on record can impact future charges
  • May still end up with a criminal record
  • Gives up chance of being found not guilty at trial
  • Judge can reject the plea agreement
  • Might negotiate a worse deal than you could’ve gotten

Carefully weigh these factors against the strength of the evidence, possible sentences, and chances of winning at trial. Every case is different.

An experienced federal criminal lawyer can help analyze the pros and cons for your specific situation. Don’t rush into any plea unadvised!

When Do Plea Offers Expire?

Plea bargain offers don’t last forever. Prosecutors will often impose a deadline, saying the deal is only on the table until X date. This puts pressure on the defendant to take the deal or it disappears.

Don’t panic if you get an expiration date. Deadlines can sometimes be extended or deals revived later. But don’t assume that either.

If you need more time to weigh options or negotiate, ask your lawyer to request an extension. But have a backup plan ready if the deadline passes. Waiting too long is risky.

Withdrawing a Guilty Plea

Buyer’s remorse is real. Some defendants regret accepting a plea bargain after the fact and want to withdraw their guilty plea. Is it possible? Sometimes.

You can move to withdraw a guilty plea before sentencing, but the standard is tough. You have to show a “fair and just reason” – like you received ineffective assistance of counsel.

After sentencing, withdrawing a plea is even harder. New evidence of innocence generally has to be discovered.

The bottom line is you can’t just change your mind. Judges don’t like plea agreements being tossed out casually. Talk to your lawyer before accepting any deal you might regret!

How Common Are Plea Bargains in Federal Cases?

We mentioned earlier that plea bargains resolve over 90% of federal criminal cases. The exact numbers according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • 97% of federal convictions are obtained through guilty pleas
  • 90-95% of those pleas result from plea bargains
  • Only 2-3% of federal cases go to trial

So it’s clear, the vast majority of federal cases end in negotiated guilty pleas. Very few defendants roll the dice on going to trial.

Given those stats, if you’re charged federally you should expect to discuss plea options with your lawyer right away. Think about whether you want to play the odds.

Can the Judge Reject a Plea Deal?

Yes, in rare cases the judge can reject a plea agreement after reviewing it. This happens in about 4-5% of federal plea bargains. Judges might reject deals that:

  • Don’t adequately reflect the seriousness of the crime
  • Give unduly lenient sentences
  • Contain fact bargaining that misrepresents what happened

If a plea gets rejected, you can either renegotiate or head to trial. Any admissions you already made generally can’t be used against you at trial.

To avoid rejection, lawyers try to craft plea deals that hew closely to the federal sentencing guidelines and don’t look obviously biased.

What Happens if You Breach a Plea Agreement?

A plea agreement is a binding contract. If you break the terms, there can be consequences:

  • Prosecutors could bring back dropped charges
  • Sentencing recommendations get tossed out
  • Any cooperation deal becomes void

So tread carefully if you’re thinking of breaching. Common ways defendants breach include:

  • Committing another crime before sentencing
  • Lying to prosecutors during cooperation
  • Hiding relevant conduct from pre-sentence report
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