As a federal criminal defense lawyer who handles drug cases in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, and Sherman, TX, I am often asked by clients when we go over a potential plea agreement, “What am I signing for?” By that, they mean, “How much prison time am I agreeing to receive if I sign this proposed plea agreement?” In federal drug trafficking and drug conspiracy cases, the answer is that almost all plea agreements do not include an agreed sentence. This blog will explain why.
Plea Bargaining Process
In Texas, our state criminal justice system involves traditional plea bargaining—where the prosecutor and the defense agree on a specific sentence. This is not the case in the federal criminal justice system. So, what is the difference?
The difference is that, in the Texas state court system, a defendant can choose whether a judge or a jury will decide what the sentence will be, whereas in the federal system, only the judge can decide that. Why does this make a difference? Because in state court, a judge normally cannot, as a practical matter, reject a plea agreement. For example, if the prosecutor and defense agreed to a punishment of 5 years in prison, and the judge did not agree, both sides could demand a trial, and they could both ask the jury for a five-year sentence. The result would be the same, but a judge would have to waste time with a trial. So Texas state criminal judges almost always approve plea agreements with an agreed sentence.
Texas Criminal Justice System vs. Federal Criminal Justice System
In the federal system, there is no option of going to a jury for punishment. Only the judge can decide the sentence. So, you cannot take the decision out of the judge’s hands. Therefore, the judge can reject an agreed sentence and decide it herself or himself.
Rule 11(c)(1)(c) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure does allow plea agreements with agreed sentences. The judge still has to approve it, though, and some judges refuse to accept them. Not only that, but most US Attorney’s Offices require high-level approval of any agreed sentence before there can be an agreement at all.
Agreed sentences in federal criminal cases are therefore rare, and when they occur, it is usually in unusual and complicated cases in which guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is possible, but difficult, to prove. Complicated financial crimes are an example.
In federal drug cases, including drug trafficking and conspiracy cases, prosecutors generally will not agree to a specific sentence, and federal judges rarely approve of them. That does not mean plea agreements are not important to negotiate. Each case is different, but there are still ways for an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to negotiate favorable provisions in plea documents, even if there is not an agreed sentence.
If you or a loved one is charged with a federal drug crime in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, or Sherman, you should consult with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer in Dallas who has expertise in drug cases. Even if the accused is guilty, having a skilled federal criminal defense lawyer like attorney John Helms, is the best way to make sure that the punishment is fair and just. Call Attorney John Helms today at (214) 666-8010.
Dallas Federal Defense Attorney John Helms
T: (214) 666-8010