Earlier this week, our firm was able to assist a client in a federal drug conspiracy case in the Northern District of Florida. The case involved a number of wiretaps, confidential informants, undercover officers, and three co-defendants who were cooperating with the Government. Our client had been intercepted on one of the wiretaps discussing a possible drug deal and was identified by the undercover agent at the location where two of the deals took place. Of course, the other people charged in the case were also willing to testify against our client.
While our firm has never advised a client to enter a guilty plea in a case where the Government’s evidence is only the testimony of “snitches” or “cooperating” co-defendants and co-conspirators, we believed it would be difficult for our client to prevail at trial in this case due to the wiretap evidence and his direct contact with the undercover officers during multiple drug deals.
While we continued to prepare for trial, we attempted to negotiate a reasonable resolution to the case with the Government. Because we had been diligently preparing for trial, the Government agreed to offer our client a plea agreement that helped him avoid facing any mandatory minimum sentence. However, the Government was unwilling to give him any other benefit and they recommended a sentence of approximately three years.
Despite this recommendation, we were able to convince the judge to sentence our client to probation instead of federal prison. Although our client’s advisory sentencing guideline range was over three years, the judge agreed with our request for probation based on the mitigating evidence we presented at the sentencing hearing.
It is very unusual for a person charged in a federal drug conspiracy case to enter a guilty plea and not go to prison. We were very fortunate that the judge listened to our arguments about our client’s employment history, educational background and strong family and community support. We prepared and filed a lengthy sentencing memorandum well in advance of the sentencing hearing and also had many family members and friends in court to support our client.
In our experience, the best plea deals happen when the defense lawyer handling the case is well-prepared and ready to go to trial. Federal prosecutors do not give defendants favorable plea deals because they like the defendant or his lawyer. And they don’t give out good deals because it’s the right thing to do. Prosecutors will give a defendant a good plea deal if they think they may lose the case at trial. They call it the “litigation risk.” In a prosecutor’s mind, the risk increases greatly when the defense lawyer has a history of winning tough federal trials.
All of our best results in negotiated pleas and dismissals came after we had worked diligently on the case and refused to accept any plea agreement that was not fair. In our opinion, a defense lawyer’s “relationship” with the prosecutor means very little when it comes to getting a good plea deal in federal court. The important factors are how hard has the defense lawyer worked on the case and how often does the defense lawyer wins tough cases at trial. Lawyers who work hard and win trials seem to always get the best deals. At least, that’s been our experience.