Differences Between State and Federal Courts Part 3: Plea Negotiations & Plea Agreements

Barry M. Wax

See Part 1: Can I Be Tried for the Same Crime in Both State and Federal Court?

See Part 2: The Discovery Process

Regardless of the crime, you’re facing or the judicial jurisdiction in which your case is being tried, a plea agreement is an important consideration for all parties involved. Plea agreements aren’t just a tool to lessen penalties and punishments, but also a tool to resolve disputes and often long legal battles in a more private, swift manner.

You should lean heavily on your attorney through this process. Your attorney should have the experience to look at the facts of your case, the applicable law, jury instructions, and the possible sentences to analyze your case, and render an opinion on the best course of action to follow.

The process will play out similarly in both Florida state courts and United States federal courts but there are a few key differences you should keep in mind.

Plea negotiations between attorneys

Regardless of jurisdiction, the defense attorney and the prosecutor will take part in negotiating a plea agreement. In both state and federal court, the defendant must be informed of any plea offers and negotiations and must agree to all details of a plea agreement.

As part of a plea negotiation and agreement, the prosecution may agree to lesser charges or abandon charges altogether. Once the final charges are determined as part of the plea bargain, the prosecutor will either make a recommendation on sentencing or agree to a specific sentence. In federal court, the negotiations between the prosecution and the defense will only determine which charges the guilty plea applies to and other factors which will affect the calculation of the advisory sentencing guidelines. Recommendations can be made about the sentence, but, as we’ll touch on below, regardless of the sentence agreed to between the two parties, the judge has the final say in federal court sentencing.

Judicial role in state court

Once the negotiations are finalized in Florida state courts, the judge must be informed of the plea agreement. At a change of plea hearing, the judge will learn the details of the plea and make clear to the defendant all of their rights and what a guilty plea means for them, their record, and the courts. Once these details are hashed out, the judge will then enter a decision.

In Florida state court, the judge has two options after a plea agreement: accept it or deny it. The judge is not permitted to modify the agreement. If the judge denies the agreement, they can express the facts of the case that make it impossible for them to concur with any plea agreements, or they can permit both parties to opt for further plea negotiations or a jury trial.

If a defendant cannot negotiate an acceptable plea agreement with the prosecution, they always have the option of “pleading to the court.” Typically, this involves what is called an “open plea.” That is, the defendant will plead guilty without knowing what the judge is going to sentence them to after a sentencing hearing. While there is a level of risk involved in this approach, many times it is the best option in a given case. For example, if the prosecution offered the defendant a sentence below the sentencing guidelines for specific charges, the judge is empowered to impose a sentence below the sentencing guidelines, which hopefully is less than the sentence previously offered by the prosecution.

If the judge accepts the plea agreement, the sentence may begin immediately, meaning a defendant who was previously out of custody will be taken into custody once the plea is accepted to serve their sentence if prison time is part of the agreement.

Judicial role in federal court

In federal court, the process up until a change of plea mostly reflects the state court process. The attorneys will negotiate and then present the details of the plea to the judge.

Because the prosecution in federal court is the government, the government is bound by the details of the agreement. However, the judge is not bound by the agreement of the parties, or the sentencing guidelines range established as a result of the plea agreement. A judge may consider the agreement, but a federal court judge has the ultimate, final say on the sentence imposed. Generally speaking, judges will favor the agreement but are not bound by all of its terms.

To summarize, the decision on sentencing is in the sole hands of the federal court judge while state court judges may only accept or reject the negotiated sentence.

It’s important to work with lawyers who have experience in both state and federal courts. Attorney Barry M. Wax has decades of experience in both jurisdictions and gives people in trouble the ability to make the right choices to regain control of their lives. Contact us today.

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