The Differences Between State and Federal Plea Agreements

Happy Friday, everybody. Hope you’re having a great week. And this week I wanted to revisit an issue that I know I’ve done in the past, but it’s always good to kind of retouch on this because it is a question that kind of comes up a whole lot, especially in my federal case as well, really only in my federal cases, because the question is regarding what the difference is between plea agreements on the state side versus the federal side. So more often than not, when I’m representing somebody in a federal case, they are at least somewhat familiar with what the state system looks like in the sense that they get the idea that a plea agreement, when you agree with the government to enter a plea of guilty it’s for a specific sentence, right?

So on the state side, at least here in Texas, that’s generally how it works, is you negotiate the case with the district attorney and the two of you come to some agreement of, “All right. If my guy pleads guilty, the sentence is going to be seven years, or if my guy pleads guilty, it’s going to be 18 months probation or whatever the case may be, right?” And that’s typically how most cases work. And so when I represent somebody on the federal level, a lot of times they’re under the assumption that that’s how it works federally as well. And unfortunately it’s not, okay? Biggest difference between plea agreements on the state side and on the federal side, is that on the federal side, typically speaking, you’re not agreeing to plead guilty for a specific sentence. You’re simply agreeing to plead guilty to a specific offense.

It’s still up to the judge to determine your sentence. And the way the judge determines that sentence is using this right here. So this is the guidelines manual for calculating sentencing guidelines. This is a little bit of an older one, it’s from 1819, but they haven’t changed any since then. So it’s still one that’s good and valid, no matter what you’re charged with, if it’s a federal crime, it is somewhere in this book, okay? So the first thing that the judge or probation or your lawyer is going to do is figure out what you were charged with and what the correlating offense level is for that crime, okay? The offense level is simply a number something between one and 42 that goes along with the crime that you’ve committed, okay? And that offense number is then either enhanced or reduced based on the specific facts of your case. So if it’s a drug case, it gets enhanced based on how much weight there was, how many drugs there were, or it might get it in a fraud case.

It gets enhanced based on the loss amount, how much money was involved. any type of case can get enhanced if there was a gun present or a gun used. They can get enhanced for other things like obstruction of justice or if you ran from the police. Those things can enhance something. They can also do what’s called reductions in that offense level for things like acceptance of responsibility. So in exchange for pleading guilty, you get three levels off. Or if you were a minor participant in a conspiracy, you get a certain number of levels off. So in any event, after that calculation comes down, you get assigned a total offense level, somewhere between one and 42, and then that gets plugged into this matrix, this grid, which I’ll put right here for just a second. You can check out what that looks like, but you see offense levels run up and down the side, and then across the top there is a criminal history score.

So they look at your priors, your criminal history and you get a score between one and six. Once you find those two numbers out, your offense level, your criminal history score, those two meet up on that grid and they give you your recommended sentencing guideline range. And that’s what the judge uses to try to figure out what sentence should be. So again, best to keep in mind that, especially on the federal side, generally speaking, you’re not agreeing to plead guilty to a specific sentence. Now there are ways to do that. It’s called an 11C1C and I don’t have a lot of time to get into what that means and how often or not that happens. But there are ways to do that. It’s just relatively rare. More often than not, you’re simply pleading guilty and then letting the judge determine sentence. So federal sentencing is very complex. It’s very complicated. There are a whole lot of nuances that I could get into, but it would take two hours of a video that I know you guys don’t have.

But if you have any specific questions or if you want to see videos on a specific aspect of sentencing, be it state sentencing or federal sentencing, let me know either in the comments below or shoot me an email and let me know, “Hey, I’m really curious, or I’m really interested in this specific topic. Can you do a video on it?” I’d be happy to do it. I’m always looking for videos that would be of interest to you guys. So let me know. I’d be happy to jump in there and see what questions I can answer. And as always, if there’s anything about this video or anything else that you want to discuss, run by me, bounce off me., I’m happy to take your phone calls. I’m happy to set up a consultation where you and I can talk and talk about what questions you might have and what answers I might be able to give. As always, I hope you have a great weekend. Stay safe out there, everybody. And I look forward to seeing you all next week.

Author Bio

James P. Whalen

James P. Whalen is the managing attorney and founder of Whalen Law Office, a Texas criminal defense firm offering personalized legal representation for various federal criminal charges. With a commitment to providing comfort and guidance during challenging times, Mr. Whalen serves as both an attorney and counselor to his clients, helping them navigate their cases while striving to restore normalcy to their lives.

In an inherently unbalanced criminal justice system, Mr. Whalen takes on cases with unwavering dedication. With decades of legal experience, he offers representation across various criminal charges, including white-collar crimes, violent crimes, drug charges, and more. Mr. Whalen’s numerous accolades, including Super Lawyer recognition and board certification in Criminal Appellate Law and Criminal Law, reflect his unwavering commitment to ethical and high-quality legal representation.

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