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What is a Plea Hearing in The Federal District Court?

After your federal criminal defense attorney has thoroughly reviewed all the evidence provided, filed any potential motion, and advised you of your chances for success at trial, you may decide that it is in your best interest to take advantage of the benefits of any Rule 11 plea that may be on the table. Once you and your lawyer have decided to plead guilty and that decision has been communicated to the AUSA (Assistant United States Attorney, a/k/a prosecutor) and the Federal district court judge, a hearing will be scheduled for taking your plea.

What Kinds of Pleas Are Available?

As is probably obvious, a "Rule 11" plea is governed by Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. This rule provides for the possibility of three kinds of pleas: a traditional plea of guilty, a conditional plea of guilty, and a nolo contendere plea of guilty.

A conditional plea is appropriate where your federal criminal defense lawyer believes you have a chance to prevail on appeal but do not want to risk trial. This occurs, for example, when a motion has been filed to contest the admissibility of evidence, and the court has ruled against you. Your lawyer may believe the court was wrong, so you want to preserve that issue on appeal. In this case, the terms of the conditional plea must also be in writing. If your lawyer is right, and you win on appeal, you can go back to the federal district court and withdraw your plea.

Nolo contendere is Latin for no contest. A no-contest plea occurs when you agree to be punished for a crime but neither admit nor deny that the crime occurred. It is the functional equivalent of a traditional guilty plea, but the no contest conviction cannot be used against you in another legal proceeding. The availability of a no contest plea will depend on a variety of case and situational factors. You should discuss this availability with your federal criminal defense lawyer. In federal criminal cases, Rule 11 allows such pleas, but only with the court's permission.

A no-contest plea is like an Alford plea . In an Alford plea arose from the United States Supreme Court case of North Carolina v. Alford 400 U.S. 25. In offering an Alford plea, the accused claims neither guilt nor innocence, but instead simply acknowledges that the government has enough evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the defendant agrees to accept all the applicable punishments.

A traditional plea is a guilty plea according to the terms of the written Rule 11 plea agreement. The traditional guilty plea is neither a conditional plea nor a no contest plea, and always contains a statement of facts in support of the conviction that the defendant agrees to admit under oath before the court. With both the no-contest plea and Alford plea the defendant is relieved of the obligation to provide a sworn recitation of what they did that makes them believe they are guilty of the crime charged.

What Happens at the Plea Hearing?

On the date of your plea hearing, you will be brought before the court and a series of questions will be asked of you by the federal district court judge, the AUSA, and possibly your federal criminal defense attorney. The court will want to assure three things: (1) that your plea is voluntary, (2) that you understand all the terms of the plea, and (3) determine that a factual basis exists as to each and every element of the crime alleged.

To accomplish this, the court will first place you under oath. Once sworn, the court will address you in open court, and a recording will be made of the hearing for later use and review if necessary. Rule 11 provides that the court must advise you of all the following items:

  1. That if you are not honest and make false statement during the plea taking process, you can be prosecuted for perjury.
  2. That you do not have to plead guilty, and if you change your mind, the court will continue your previous plea of not guilty.
  3. That you have a right to a trial by a jury of your peers and that at this trial you have a right to be represented by a lawyer.
  4. That if you did have a trial, your lawyer would be able to confront and cross examine all the government's witnesses. You can also take the stand at such trial; or, if you choose, can remain silent.
  5. That you give up all these trial rights by pleading guilty.
  6. That by pleading guilty you give up the right to appeal or to collaterally attack the sentence.
  7. That your plea could impact your immigration status.

The judge will also discuss with you the crime you are pleading guilty to, the maximum possible sentence for this crime, and any minimum mandatory sentence that may apply. In determining the appropriate sentence in your case, the judge will consider the applicable sentencing-guideline range. The court may also discuss possible departures from these guidelines and any other sentencing factors that may be applicable under 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).

After the above recitations, the court will next ask you to describe in your own words what you did that makes you guilty of the offense to which you are pleading guilty. At this time, you must provide, in your own words, a brief description of those actions that fulfill each element of the offense, and therefore, the actions that make you guilty of this crime. It may be helpful for you to collaborate with your lawyer relative to what you intend to say to the court in this regard. It may also be helpful for you and your lawyer to prepare a written outline of each of the elements and the specific facts that you agree satisfy those elements. This may help you to answer the courts questions and have your plea accepted by the court in the most business-like way possible.

Federal Judicial Considerations Related to Your Plea of Guilty

The judge may accept your Rule 11 guilty plea if it comports with Rule 11(c)(1)(A) or (C), and the judge is satisfied that all the above provisions have been met. The judge may accept the plea at the plea hearing, or in some instances, the judge can wait until after it has reviewed the presentence report (described in the next section).

When accepting the plea, the judge must also, when the plea agreement includes a sentencing agreement under Rule 11(c)(1)(B), advise you that you have no right to withdraw the plea if the judge does not follow the sentencing agreement or request. Also, the judge must advise you that if the judge does not follow the sentence agreement, or if the plea agreement does not contain a sentence recommendation, the judge may sentence you more harshly than otherwise contemplated. Finally, the court can reject your plea.

Once the judge is satisfied that your plea is "freely, knowingly and understandingly" made, the judge will accept your guilty plea and the case will be set for a sentencing hearing.

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