A federal plea agreement is essentially the same as any other legally binding contract. That means that breaking the plea agreement or getting out of it is incredibly difficult after you’ve signed your name. With that in mind, it’s possible to get out of a plea agreement. However, that often requires the skill and experience of a proven criminal defense attorney for federal crimes. In this article, we discuss:

  • What is a plea agreement?
  • Who should consider accepting a federal plea agreement
  • How to get out of a plea bargain
  • What to do before accepting a plea agreement

Continue reading to learn more about federal plea bargaining.

What Is A Plea Agreement?

A plea bargain or plea agreement is an agreement between federal prosecutors and the defendant in a criminal case.

Generally, the function of a plea bargain is to offer the defendant reduced sentencing, reduced number of criminal counts, or an omission of certain facts that may lead to more serious penalties.

For the most part, there are four types of plea agreements. They include:

  • Charge bargaining: The defense pleads guilty to a lesser offense than originally charged
  • Count bargaining: The defense agrees to plead guilty to some of the original charges, and the prosecution agrees to drop the remaining charges
  • Sentence bargaining: The defendant agrees to plead guilty to all charges, but only after the prosecution promises to recommend a lighter sentence
  • Fact bargaining: The defense agrees to plead guilty so long as the prosecution agrees to omit certain evidence that would otherwise lead to harsher penalties.

Most federal criminal cases don’t go to trial. The overwhelming majority of cases are concluded via plea bargain. However, it’s important to note that accepting a plea agreement requires the defense to plead guilty to a crime.

signing an agreement with the government

Further, federal judges must consider the federal sentencing guidelines during sentencing. That’s true regardless of the agreement. With that in mind, certain crimes carry a mandatory minimum.

So, before accepting a plea bargain, most federal criminal defense attorneys recommend understanding the charges and potential penalties.

Who Should Consider Accepting A Plea Agreement?

Federal prosecutors prefer plea agreements because they take less time and resources. Additionally, a federal plea agreement essentially guarantees the prosecution a guilty verdict.

There are many reasons for a defendant to accept a plea bargain. A few of the most common include:

  • The defendant knows he or she is guilty and wants to engage in negotiations for lighter sentencing or reduced charges.
  • The defendant is guilty and can help the prosecution with other criminal investigations.
  • The defendant is willing to plead guilty because he or she doesn’t want to risk the penalties associated with going to trial.

Federal prosecutors have unlimited resources and the tools of every federal law enforcement agency at their fingertips.

That means that they don’t typically file charges until they have ample evidence. With that in mind, plea agreements are often the only way for defendants to receive lighter sentences or reduced charges.

How Can I Get Out Of A Plea Agreement?

Woman and Man sitting with Lawyer

It’s rarely “easy” to get out of a federal plea agreement. Generally, if you’re having second thoughts about a plea bargain, you must prove the following to get out of the deal:

  1. You were under duress when you signed the agreement
  1. The prosecution forced you to sign it
  1. The federal government didn’t keep promises made in the agreement

Most plea agreements include statements that directly address the examples listed above, so it’s nearly impossible to get out of a plea bargain. For that reason, most federal criminal defense lawyers recommend carefully considering your options before signing an agreement with the government.

What To Do Before Accepting A Plea Agreement

Accepting a plea agreement may be the best option on the table for many defendants. However, that doesn’t mean that they should enter into any agreement blindly. Before signing a federal plea agreement, you should consider the following:

  • Potential prison sentence you can expect when accepting the agreement
  • Your ability to appeal the ruling
  • Other consequences a conviction may bring (i.e., lost voting privileges, employment issues, and housing concerns)
  • Understanding that you are voluntarily waiving certain rights when signing a plea agreement
  • Possible consequences for immigration status

Overall, the number one thing you can do before accepting a plea bargain is hire an attorney familiar with how plea bargaining works and what is required to get a fair plea agreement.

Having an attorney evaluate your federal plea agreement before signing can help ensure that you get the best possible deal under the circumstances.


Michael Humphreys has spent more than 25 years with the United States Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor, including approximately 10 years in Washington, D.C., handling cases all over the United States. Up until the end of 2018, he was a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas. An attorney with a very broad range of criminal and civil experience, Michael is no stranger to the courtroom having been involved with high-stakes federal litigation. If you need powerhouse lawyers for your federal case, get Michael on your side. Michael handles federal criminal and civil matters across the United States.