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What Happens During a Federal Criminal Plea?


Many people who have federal cases and are charged with a crime and will end up having to plead guilty are interested in what exactly happens at the plea. First and foremost, you will sign a plea agreement typically with the government.

You can certainly do an open plea with the court, but you usually say better than 95% of the time that you will work out a resolution with the federal government. Then they will submit the plea to the court, and the court will then contact both counsels and set up a date for the plea.Federal Plea Agreement

Many of these pleas occur through a video in Los Angeles County and probably across the country because of the Covid-19 virus and the Omicron variant. For the last nearly 30 years that I’ve been practicing criminal defense, you would have to appear in person.  The judge would go over the plea with you, and you’d enter your plea in front of the judge.  That’s still done; it’s just done with a video.

I think, very soon, it will go back to the way it was before.  Federal pleas, in my opinion, are particularly important to have the defendant and his attorney in the courtroom in front of the judge. The judge will go over the plea agreement.  They’ll go over the factual basis, which is the language in the plea agreement that talks about exactly what you did.

They’re going to confirm that you are clear on agreeing with what you did so nobody can be upset later and claim, no, I didn’t agree to that, so they’re going to make sure that you agree to the language on a factual basis. Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will review this topic further below.

What Are Plea Agreements in a Federal Criminal Case?

Most federal criminal cases never go to trial. Instead, they are resolved through a plea agreement between the defendant’s lawyer and the federal prosecutor. Plea agreements usually involve the defendant pleading guilty to get some charges dropped, reduced, or a recommendation for a lighter sentence. Federal prosecutors often prefer a plea agreement because:

  • it secures a criminal conviction, and
  • saves significant time and expense of going to trial.

There are several situations where defendants will accept a plea agreement in a federal criminal case, such as:

  • they know they’re guilty, and there is solid evidence against them,
  • a plea bargain will typically lead to a lesser sentence.

Perhaps the defendant played a minor role in the crime, even innocent, but a plea agreement will quickly resolve the case and get it behind them to move on with their lives.

A plea agreement typically reduces a defendant’s risk of a lengthy federal prison sentence in criminal cases. Further, federal prosecutors have thoroughly investigated the case and often have substantial evidence before it reaches a trial stage.

However, federal plea agreements still have some risk to the defendant. Perhaps the prosecutor will offer little but demand much from the defendant. They could demand, for instance, that:

  • any plea agreement has to include a waiver of your right to appeal the sentence, and
  • they could also demand the defendant admit to other criminal conduct that might be used for an enhanced sentence.

Even so, the plea bargain will generally determine the sentence by the federal judge, and most will accept the terms in the agreement because their chances are high for a conviction and a harsh punishment. Several types of federal charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence, such as drug offenses. For instance, you could be offered a three-year sentence, but a conviction at trial could result in 7 years.

The federal sentencing guidelines provide a reduced sentence for defendants that plead guilty and accept responsibility. This could reduce a sentence by at least one year or more. It’s one of the main reasons defendants decide to enter a guilty plea in a federal court and accept the plea agreement.

What is the Role of the Federal Judge?

Another thing all of these federal judges like to do is to show the defendant that they are the ones that are going to be in charge of their sentence is. They will ask most defendants, specifically, has anybody promised you any particular punishment to get you to enter this plea? Of course, the answer will have to be no because your attorney should explain to you that ultimately, the judge will decide precisely your sentence.  Of course, the judge:

  • must take into consideration the plea agreement,
  • the federal sentencing guidelines,
  • what the prosecutor has to argue,
  • what the defense has to argue.

You’re even entitled to make a statement at the plea, and ultimately, the judge will decide what your sentence will be.

When Will Sentencing Occur in a Federal Crime Case?

When you plead, you’re not going to be sentenced immediately.  Usually, depending on the court’s availability, your sentencing will be set over 3 or 4 months, and then a probation report will be prepared.Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Your attorney will be allowed to object to anything they don’t think is fair.  Before that happens, you will be interviewed by the probation department with your attorney present.

So, the judge will give you an outline of what you’re looking at moving forward.  He’s going to make sure you understand all of the particulars in the plea agreement, and he’s going to take your guilty plea and set your case for sentencing.

Most judges will leave you out of custody.  There are those few judges, especially if you’re looking at a mandatory minimum, who will take the defendant into custody under the theory that they’re going to go in custody anyway, they might as well go in now.  I rarely see that happen, but I have seen it happen in some instances with certain judges.

So, if you are looking for a federal criminal defense attorney, I’ve been doing this now for 30 years.  I know how cases are handled the right way.  I know how to get the best results for my clients.  Pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I stand at the ready to help you.

The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles County, and we serve people in California and throughout the United States on federal offenses. We offer a free case consultation at (213) 374-3952, or fill out our contact form.

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About the Author

Named Top Los Angeles Criminal Attorney by LA Times and named one of the Top 100 criminal defense attorneys in California by the National Trial Lawyers Association. I'm the attorney other lawyers hire to defend them.

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