A plea agreement is the negotiated resolution of a criminal case between the government and the defense when the client decides to plead guilty rather than fighting the charges at trial. The benefit of a plea agreement is that the plea is usually to a lower offense or a limited number of charges rather than to the most severe charge(s). In most instances, a defendant is rewarded in some fashion for pleading guilty rather than going to trial. In the State of New Jersey, the defendant’s attorney can negotiate a plea to the specific charges and the length of the sentence. This is commonly referred to as sentence bargaining. The plea form will be in writing with all of the terms that have been agreed to between the defense attorney and the Assistant Prosecutor. The form – New Jersey Judiciary Plea Form – lists the charges the person is pleading to along with the statutory maximum period of incarceration, fines and penalties. The form also lists the specific sentence the prosecutor has agreed to recommend, along with any other agreements between the parties.
In almost every case, the sentencing judge abides by the terms negotiated between the defense and the prosecutor. If the judge does not agree at sentencing to the negotiated terms, the defendant has the right to either withdraw his plea and go to trial, or accept the sentence the judge imposes. If the defendant decides to withdraw his plea, nothing the defendant said under oath at the time of the plea can be used at trial against the defendant.
In the federal system, a plea agreement is much different and offers fewer protections and less certainty of sentence to the defendant. The standard plea agreement in the District of New Jersey provides for the charge(s) that the defendant will plead to, the time period covered by the agreement and any stipulations between the parties. Typically, the parties’ stipulations will cover the base level offense under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and any additional enhancements/points for amount of loss, role in the offense and other offense offense-specific categories.
The benefit to the defendant is that he or she pleads to a limited number of offenses, often negotiating a lower loss amount or drug quantity, and has limited other possible enhancements through the stipulations (agreement) between the parties. In addition, the defendant receives points off the total offense level for acceptance of responsibility (pleading guilty rather than going to trial). A federal plea agreement most often limits the person’s exposure and reduces the possible sentence under the circumstances.
Unlike the state system, however, the federal court is not bound by the stipulations between the parties and the defendant is not allowed to withdraw his plea if the court sentences a defendant to a longer period of incarceration than agreed to in the plea agreement. Here in the District of New Jersey, there is an added stipulation that the defendant waives his right to appeal the sentence if the court sentences the person at or below the stipulated guideline range. Should the court sentence above the agreed upon range, then the right to appeal is preserved.
It is vital that a person charged in the federal system be represented by an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. Plea bargaining in the federal system is quite different from that in the state, and offers far greater uncertainties in the ultimate sentence. While in the state system the sentence is agreed to by the parties, in the federal system the defense must draft and submit a detailed, compelling sentencing submission to the court in order for the client to receive the best possible sentence.
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