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How Federal Defense Attorneys Negotiate Plea Agreements with Prosecutors

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

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 01:57 pm


How Federal Defense Attorneys Negotiate Plea Agreements with Prosecutors

When a defendant is charged with a federal crime, their defense attorney will often try to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor rather than going to trial. Plea agreements allow defendants to plead guilty in exchange for some kind of concession from the prosecution, such as a lesser charge or a more lenient sentence recommendation. Negotiating a favorable plea deal is a key part of a federal defense attorney’s job.

The Benefits of Plea Agreements

Plea bargains are very common in the federal criminal justice system—over 90% of federal criminal cases get resolved through a guilty plea rather than a trial. There are good reasons for this on both sides:

  • For defendants, pleading guilty avoids the risk of losing at trial and getting a maximum sentence. It also saves time and legal expenses.
  • For prosecutors, plea deals resolve cases quickly so they can move on to other cases. Trials are time consuming and uncertain.

In short, plea agreements allow both sides to control the outcome rather than leaving it up to a jury.

Leverage and Options in Plea Bargaining

When negotiating a plea agreement, the defense attorney looks for leverage to get the prosecutor to offer concessions. Different types of leverage can include:

  • Legal defenses – Arguments that could win at trial or get charges dismissed, like challenging the admissibility of evidence.
  • Mitigating circumstances – Information presenting the defendant in a sympathetic light.
  • Defendant’s cooperation – Offering to provide testimony or information about other cases.
  • Overcharging – Charging decisions that seem excessive given the facts.
  • Weak evidence – Holes or inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s case.
  • Equities – Reasons it’s in the prosecutor’s interest to resolve the case, like saving government resources.

A defense attorney analyzes the case to identify where the most leverage exists and uses that to negotiate for something beneficial in exchange for a guilty plea. Common types of plea agreement terms include:

  • Pleading guilty to lesser charges with lower sentences
  • Agreeing to a sentencing recommendation, like 3 years instead of 5
  • Having certain charges dropped entirely
  • Avoiding mandatory minimum sentences
  • Serving time concurrently rather than consecutively
  • Getting transferred to a lower-security prison

The plea offer has to provide enough benefit to convince the defendant to give up their right to trial. But the prosecutor still has to feel like they’re getting a just outcome that protects public safety.

Common Defense Strategies in Plea Negotiations

In negotiating a plea deal, some strategies federal defense attorneys commonly use include:

  • Early cooperation – Offering the defendant’s cooperation early to get maximum benefit. But this carries risks, like not knowing the full case.
  • Holding out – Resisting plea negotiations at first to see if the prosecution’s case deteriorates or bargaining power increases closer to trial.
  • Concessions over time – Making gradual concessions in stages to avoid leaving things on the table.
  • Good faith efforts – Demonstrating good faith efforts to cooperate, plead guilty, etc. to gain credibility with the prosecutor.
  • Linking charges – Offering to plead guilty to some charges only if others are dropped.
  • Sentence bargaining – Focusing negotiations on the sentence recommendation rather than charges.

There are pros and cons to each approach depending on the situation. Experienced federal defense lawyers adapt their strategy case-by-case.

Ethical Considerations

Defense attorneys have an ethical obligation to try to get the best deal possible for their client. However, legal and ethics rules still place some limits on plea negotiations:

  • Lawyers can’t misrepresent facts or make false statements.
  • They must have a good faith basis for making claims or threats about the case.
  • They can’t conceal or tamper with evidence.
  • Plea recommendations have to be within the bounds of the law.

Unethical conduct in plea bargaining can lead to sanctions for the attorney or the deal being rejected by the court. Most defense lawyers take great care to negotiate zealously but honestly.

Why Plea Bargaining Matters

Plea negotiations are a critical phase of the criminal justice process. The agreements reached determine whether defendants get locked up and for how long. Skillful bargaining by defense counsel makes a huge difference in achieving just outcomes for their clients. That’s why understanding how federal plea agreements work is so important for anyone facing criminal prosecution.

With liberty and justice at stake, federal defense attorneys take their role as negotiators very seriously. Their ability to effectively argue their client’s case and secure the most favorable terms possible can change lives.

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