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Should You Plead or Go to Trial on Criminal Charges in Federal Court?

By Spodek Law Group | July 26, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 15, 2023)

Last Updated on: 15th October 2023, 07:53 am

Should You Plead or Go to Trial on Criminal Charges in Federal Court?

Getting charged with a federal crime can be scary. You’re probably wondering if you should plead guilty or go to trial. This article will walk you through the pros and cons of each option, so you can make the best decision for your case.

How Federal Cases Work

First, it’s important to understand how federal criminal cases work. The process starts when you get arrested by federal agents. You’ll go before a judge who informs you of the charges and sets bail. Next, the prosecutor – called the U.S. Attorney – will present evidence to a grand jury. If the grand jury thinks there’s enough evidence, they’ll issue an indictment with the criminal charges.

After you’re indicted, you’ll be arraigned and asked to enter a plea – guilty, not guilty or no contest. Most people plead not guilty at first, even if they plan to take a plea deal later. This gives your defense attorney time to negotiate with the prosecutor.

Over 90% of federal criminal cases end in plea bargains. Let’s look at the pros and cons of pleading guilty versus going to trial.

Pros of Taking a Plea Bargain

  • More Lenient Sentence: Pleading guilty usually results in a lighter sentence than if you lost at trial. Prosecutors will often drop some charges or recommend a reduced sentence.
  • Avoid Uncertainty: You’ll know your punishment upfront instead of leaving it to chance at trial. There are no guarantees with a jury.
  • Save Money: Trials are expensive. Expert witnesses, investigations, added lawyer fees – it all adds up fast.
  • Quick Resolution: Many people want to put the case behind them as fast as possible. Trials can drag on.
  • Privacy: Pleading keeps your case out of the public eye. Trials can lead to unwanted media attention.

Cons of Taking a Plea Bargain

  • Admit Guilt: You’ll have a felony conviction on your record, which can limit job opportunities, voting rights, gun ownership, and more.
  • Waive Appeal Rights: Generally you give up your right to appeal the conviction and sentence after a guilty plea.
  • Harsher Punishment: In rare cases, the judge may hand down a tougher sentence than the plea bargain recommended.
  • Deportation: Pleading guilty to some crimes can get lawful immigrants deported. A trial acquittal could’ve avoided this.

Pros of Going to Trial

  • Acquittal: You might be found not guilty and go free. Juries acquit in about 3% of federal trials.
  • Public Vindication: A not guilty verdict clears your name in the public eye. Pleading guilty brands you as a criminal.
  • Preserve Appeal Rights: After a trial, you can appeal issues like improper evidence or prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Avoid Deportation: Some lawful immigrants might avoid deportation if acquitted at trial, versus pleading guilty.
  • Make the Government Prove its Case: Their evidence might have holes. Cross examination could expose lies from informants.

Cons of Going to Trial

  • Harsher Sentence: Lose at trial, and you’ll almost certainly get a tougher sentence than a plea bargain.
  • Jail Time Awaiting Trial: You may spend months or years in jail awaiting your court date, only to end up with a guilty verdict anyway.
  • Prosecution Has More Time: They can shore up weaknesses in their case while awaiting trial. This reduces the chance of acquittal.
  • Cost: Lawyer fees, expert witnesses, investigations – trials are very expensive. And there’s no guarantee you’ll win.
  • Stress: The uncertainty of trial and threat of harsh punishment can cause immense stress on you and loved ones.
  • Reputation Damage: Testimony and evidence presented at trial could portray you in a negative light, even if found not guilty.

When is Pleading Guilty the Best Choice?

In general, pleading guilty makes the most sense if:

  • You are clearly guilty and there’s strong evidence against you. Why risk harsher punishment at trial?
  • You committed a minor crime and are offered a light sentence, like probation. Not worth the cost and stress of a trial.
  • You’re an immigrant where pleading to a minor crime won’t lead to deportation. Avoid the trial risk.
  • Your top priority is putting the case behind you as fast as possible, even if it means admitting guilt.

When is Going to Trial the Best Choice?

Here are some situations where trial may be your best option:

  • You have a strong defense case with major holes in the prosecution’s evidence. Why not fight it?
  • The charges are exaggerated or false. You refuse to admit to crimes you didn’t commit.
  • You face over 10 years imprisonment if convicted. The plea bargain isn’t good enough to risk that.
  • Immigration issues make pleading too risky, but acquittal at trial could avoid deportation.
  • Your reputation or career will be destroyed if convicted. You need to fight for public vindication.

Consulting an Experienced Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer

Deciding whether to plead guilty or go to trial in a federal criminal case is complex. The best thing you can do is consult with a defense lawyer who specializes in federal cases.

Here are some of the ways a knowledgeable federal criminal attorney can help:

  • Explain how federal sentencing guidelines work and estimate your sentence exposure.
  • Gauge the strength of the government’s case by reviewing evidence and conducting investigations.
  • Negotiate with the U.S. Attorney to get you the best possible plea bargain.
  • Develop a trial strategy to exploit weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
  • Advise whether trial or plea bargain is the better option based on the unique circumstances of your case.
  • Help non-citizen clients understand immigration consequences of pleading guilty.
  • Provide experienced representation in court if you choose to go to trial.

Don’t go it alone against the power of the federal government. Hire an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to protect your rights, freedom and future. The stakes are high, but an effective legal strategy can help you obtain the best possible outcome whether through plea bargain or trial.


Facing criminal charges in federal court is frightening. But cooperating with prosecutors through a guilty plea isn’t necessarily your only option. In many cases, going to trial makes more strategic sense.

Carefully weigh the pros and cons for your specific situation. Then make an informed choice of how to proceed after consulting with a federal criminal defense attorney. With an experienced legal advocate on your side, you can confidently fight the charges or negotiate a fair plea bargain.

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