In federal drug cases, cooperating with the Government is often the best way for a defendant to reduce their sentence. Many defendants, however, have difficulty cooperating with the Government because they simply do not trust the Government. Experienced criminal defense lawyer John Helms explains in this article why trusting the Government should not be a barrier to cooperating.
In the federal criminal justice system in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, and Sherman, Texas, defendants accused of drug trafficking or distribution face potentially severe penalties if they are convicted, including spending many years in federal prison. Sentences of fifteen years or longer are common.
For many defendants in drug trafficking or distribution cases, the best option is to try to reduce their sentence by cooperating with the Government. Under section 5K1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, if a defendant gives “substantial assistance” to the Government in the investigation or prosecution of another person, the Prosecutor can file a request that asks the judge to reduce the recommended range of punishment under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In effect, this is a request to reduce the defendant’s sentence.
Many defendants cooperate with the Government and receive a reduction in their sentences. Others, however, are very hesitant to cooperate. One reason is that they fear for their safety or the safety of their families if they cooperate. In many cases, this is a legitimate fear, and only the defendant can estimate how dangerous cooperation might be. I have found, though, that most families are not worried about their own safety and very much want their loved one to cooperate if it means getting out of prison earlier.
Another common barrier to cooperation, though, is that defendants often do not want to trust the Government. I believe this is because their life experiences cause them not to trust people they do not know, not to trust anyone in law enforcement, who they view as the enemy, not to make deals based on trust, and not to do something for someone else without knowing what they will get in return. In addition, many defendants feel that they need to be in control of a situation before they are comfortable. These impulses may have served someone well during the course of their life or their business, but the federal criminal justice system is entirely different from anything they have experienced. It is therefore important for a defendant in a drug trafficking or drug distribution case in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, or Sherman to understand that making decisions based on how they have handled situations in the past may not work well in the federal criminal justice system.
It is important to understand that you cannot negotiate what benefit from cooperation you will receive before you cooperate. You cannot get a guarantee or even a promise of what benefit you could get. The law says that whether to ask for a reduction, and in what amount, is entirely up to the Prosecutor. Even if the Prosecutor makes a request for a sentence reduction, whether to accept the Prosecutor’s request is entirely up to the Judge. Prosecutors and federal agents will not commit to any particular benefit before a defendant cooperates, for several reasons.
First, they do not know how valuable your help might be before you actually give them that help. They do not know what you will do to help them. They do not know whether your help will actually lead to anything. They do not know who your help might involve or how valuable a target that person or those persons might be. They do not even know whether you actually know anything they do not already know. Therefore, they cannot commit to any particular benefit before you cooperate.
Second, when they are working with drug dealers and traffickers, they know they are working with a group of people who are not always very trustworthy. They have lots of experience with people who claim to want to cooperate, but who lie to them.
Third, it would be highly embarrassing for a Prosecutor to commit to a benefit, and have to ask a judge for that benefit, if the cooperation proved to be worthless or only minimally helpful.
Many people ask, “Why should I trust them if they don’t trust me?” The answer is that you don’t have a choice. When you are accused of drug trafficking or distribution in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, or Sherman, you basically have little to no bargaining power. You may think that the federal agents are desperate to get your information, but unless you are about to give them El Chapo, they are not going to lose any sleep if you do not cooperate. The agents are not looking at spending many years in federal prison. If you help them, they appreciate it, but they do not have nearly as much at stake as you do. In short, in federal drug trafficking or distribution cases, you do not get to make the rules.
This is hard for many people to accept. After all, in their experience, they would never do business with someone without a guarantee, or at least a promise, of exactly what they are going to get. Again, though, the federal criminal justice system is not like everyday life. Lessons learned in everyday life often just do not apply to a legal system that most defendants have never before experienced.
So, why should you trust federal agents and prosecutors? The answer is that they have an incentive to treat you fairly if you give them real value. Prosecutors and agents who are go-getters can be recognized and even rewarded for investigating and prosecuting people through their own efforts. They also want to enforce the law and put criminals behind bars. They want you to cooperate. If a prosecutor or a federal agent gets a reputation for not being fair to people who cooperate, no one will cooperate with them. That could have negative job consequences for them. Prosecutors and federal agents therefore generally try to earn and keep a reputation for fairness.
An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, and Sherman should know the reputations of the federal drug prosecutors for fairness and should be able to advise defendants about whether they can expect to be rewarded fairly for their cooperation. Although you may not know in advance whether, and to what extent, you will get credit for cooperating, this should not be a reason you do not cooperate, as long as the Prosecutor will be fair with you. A criminal defense lawyer like me who has experience with federal drug cases in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, and Sherman should be able to advise you about whether you can expect that and whether cooperation is the best decision for you.