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Can You Negotiate a Plea Deal for Federal Charges? Benefits and Risks

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:31 am


Can You Negotiate a Plea Deal for Federal Charges? Benefits and Risks

Getting charged with a federal crime can be scary. The stakes are high, and the federal system can seem cold and unforgiving. Many people facing federal charges wonder if they can negotiate with prosecutors to get a better deal through a plea bargain. The short answer is yes, you can often negotiate plea deals on federal cases. But there are risks and benefits to weigh when deciding whether to take a plea or go to trial. Here’s what you need to know about plea bargaining federal charges.

How Federal Plea Bargains Work

Over 90% of federal criminal cases end in a plea deal, rather than going to trial. Here’s how federal plea bargains typically work:

  • The prosecutor offers to reduce your charges or recommended sentence if you plead guilty.
  • This avoids the time and expense of a trial for both sides.
  • You waive certain rights, like the right to a jury trial.
  • The judge reviews the deal and can accept or reject it.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth negotiation that happens before a deal is reached. Defense lawyers will advocate for the best possible deal under the circumstances. Prosecutors know that trials are uncertain, so they have incentive to compromise.

Benefits of Taking a Federal Plea Deal

There are some big potential benefits to negotiating a plea bargain on federal charges versus going to trial:

  • Lower charges: Prosecutors may agree to drop or reduce some charges as part of a plea deal.
  • Lower sentences: Plea deals often come with a recommendation for a lighter sentence.
  • Avoid mandatory minimums: Pleading can avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences that apply if you’re convicted at trial.
  • Certainty: You get a defined outcome rather than leaving it up to a jury.
  • Save money: Trials are expensive, whereas plea deals cost less in legal fees.

In many cases, the sentencing difference between pleading and losing at trial is significant. Prosecutors know juries are unpredictable, so they’re often willing to give sentencing discounts in exchange for avoiding trial.

Risks of Accepting a Federal Plea Deal

Of course, there are also risks and downsides to keep in mind:

  • Admit guilt: You must admit responsibility as part of a guilty plea, which becomes part of your record.
  • Waive trial rights: You give up your constitutional right to a jury trial and to confront accusers.
  • Judge can reject: The judge isn’t required to accept the plea deal, though they usually do.
  • Pre-sentence reports: A probation officer will still investigate and make their own sentencing recommendation.
  • Cooperation: Plea deals sometimes require cooperating against others, which can be dangerous.

The worst case scenario is you plead guilty expecting a light sentence, but the judge imposes a much harsher sentence than you expected. This is rare, but it does happen.

When Are Plea Deals More Likely?

Certain factors make federal prosecutors more likely to offer a favorable plea bargain:

  • Weak evidence or legal flaws in their case
  • Saving expenses if the trial would be long or complex
  • If you have info to cooperate against others
  • Overloaded prosecutors wanting to resolve cases quickly
  • Low level crimes unlikely to go to trial

The less time and resources they need to invest in your case, the better deal they’ll likely offer. But federal prosecutors rarely make plea offers that seem overly lenient.

Can I Negotiate Multiple Times?

Yes, it’s totally normal to go back and forth negotiating a plea deal multiple times. The first offer is rarely the best deal prosecutors will agree to. Your lawyer can keep countering and see if they’ll lower charges or the sentence recommendation.

But you can’t wait forever – at some point you’ll need to either accept their final offer or proceed to trial. Prosecutors will eventually get annoyed with excessive back-and-forth bargaining.

What Happens If I Reject a Plea Offer?

If you don’t accept a plea offer, then your case goes to trial. Rejecting a deal has a few consequences:

  • Prosecutors will prepare for trial rather than resolving the case.
  • They probably won’t make any other plea offers.
  • You lose any benefits you would’ve gotten from pleading guilty.
  • Harsher mandatory minimums or sentencing guidelines might apply if you’re convicted.

Sometimes rejecting an initial offer leads to a better deal later. But usually federal prosecutors get more stubborn if you decline their offer.

Should I Accept a Plea Deal?

Whether to accept a federal plea offer depends on your specific situation. It’s a major decision that requires weighing the risks and rewards. Some key questions to think about:

  • How strong is the evidence against you? Is conviction likely?
  • Do you have any viable defenses for trial?
  • How severe are the charges and possible penalties if you lose at trial?
  • Is the plea deal sentence significantly lower than your exposure if convicted?
  • What rights are you giving up by not going to trial?
  • Can you live with pleading guilty and having a record?

There are no easy answers. Talk through all these issues thoroughly with your defense lawyer before deciding whether to accept a federal plea offer.

Strategies for Negotiating a Better Plea Deal

If you decide to pursue a plea bargain, here are some strategies to try securing a better federal plea deal:

  • Highlight weaknesses in their case and strengths in your defense.
  • Offer to cooperate against others, if you have any information.
  • Note your limited criminal history and positive background.
  • Get others to write letters vouching for your character.
  • Cite comparable cases where defendants got light sentences.
  • Politely keep countering their offers until they reach your goal.
  • Consider undergoing counseling or drug treatment before pleading.

The more leverage you have, the more room to potentially negotiate. But some cases leave little room for bargaining if the evidence is strong.

Should I Accept a Plea Deal and Cooperate?

Cooperating means providing information to prosecutors that helps build cases against others. It’s one of the main ways defendants get lower sentences in federal cases. But there are risks:

  • You must admit your own involvement.
  • You’ll be labeled a “snitch” and could be in danger.
  • You have to testify against former friends or associates.
  • If you lie or withhold info, your deal could get revoked.

Cooperation deals require waiving your 5th Amendment rights. And you have to come completely clean about your own activities. So there are many tough issues to weigh before accepting a cooperation deal. Discuss the pros and cons at length with your lawyer.

Can a Judge Reject a Plea Deal?

Yes, federal judges can reject plea bargains, but this rarely happens. Judges may reject deals if they think:

  • The sentence is too lenient and undermines federal law.
  • You don’t fully accept responsibility for the crimes.
  • You’re being treated too harshly compared to co-defendants.

If a judge rejects your plea deal, you can either work out a new deal with prosecutors or proceed to trial.

Should You Accept a Plea Deal and File an Appeal Later?

It’s possible but challenging to appeal a conviction or sentence after pleading guilty. Grounds for appeal after taking a plea deal are limited to:

  • Your plea wasn’t entered voluntarily or knowingly.
  • Ineffective assistance from your lawyer.
  • Prosecutorial misconduct affected your decision to plead.
  • The sentence imposed exceeded what you agreed to in the plea.

So appealing after pleading guilty is difficult and rarely succeeds. It’s best to negotiate the best deal possible up front rather than counting on winning an appeal later.

Takeaways on Federal Plea Bargaining

Here are some key takeaways on negotiating plea deals for federal charges:

  • Plea bargains resolve over 90% of federal cases, so they’re very common.
  • Negotiating pleas involves weighing risks vs. rewards.
  • Pleas often come with significantly lower sentences.
  • But you must admit guilt and waive trial rights.
  • Judges rarely reject plea deals.
  • It’s challenging to appeal convictions after pleading guilty.
  • Discuss all options thoroughly with your lawyer before deciding.

Facing federal charges is daunting. But working with an experienced federal defense lawyer can help you navigate the plea bargaining process and achieve the best possible outcome. Be sure to consider all angles before accepting or rejecting a federal plea offer.


Federal Plea Bargaining. United States Department of Justice.

Plea Bargain. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute.

Plea Agreements. United States Sentencing Commission.

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