Criminal cases are generally resolved in one of two ways – 1) trial, or 2) a plea deal. In the federal system, the vast majority of cases are resolved by guilty pleas. Generally, when a plea agreement is reached, the parties will agree on which charges the defendant will plead guilty to but will leave the question of sentencing up to the sentencing judge. Because of this, it is difficult for defendants to know with certainty what kind of penalty they are facing – this is where Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas come into play.
Overview of Federal Criminal Sentencing
Federal judges are required to consider the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual, as well as sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553, before imposing a sentence. Judges are not bound by the guidelines, but they are required to consult them when rendering a sentence. In other words, a sentencing judge must look at the guidelines but they are advisory only.
Every federal charge carries with it a statutory sentencing range, which will set the maximum and minimum term of imprisonment, fines, and/or special assessments. Once a defendant pleads guilty to a charge, the court will set a date for sentencing.
Following a guilty plea, but before sentencing, U.S. Probation will conduct a Presentence Interview of the defendant. After the interview, the probation officer will provide a Presentence Report, which generally contains background information about the defendant and the crime(s), but also contains the statutory range of punishment and a calculation of the sentencing guidelines. The Defendant will have an opportunity to file objections to anything contained in the PSI before sentencing.
Following the PSI, the Court will have a sentencing hearing. The sentencing hearing, however, must be set for at least 35 days after the defendant is provided with the PSI unless the defendant waives this minimum period. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(e)(2).
At the sentencing hearing, the judge will consider the Guidelines, as well as the § 3553 factors, and can generally set any sentence not in excess of the statutorily prescribed maximum. Thus, while a defendant may have some idea of where his sentence may land, he cannot know for certain.
This is where Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas become important.
Application of Rule 11(c)(1)(C) at Sentencing
Rule 11(c)(1)(C) allows the defendant and Federal Government to “agree that a specific sentence or sentencing range is the appropriate disposition of the case, or that a particular provision of the Sentencing Guidelines, or policy statement, or sentencing factor does or does not apply.” The purpose of a plea under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) is to limit the sentencing judge’s discretion.
However, the sentencing judge has the discretion to accept or deny a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea. But once the plea is accepted, the sentencing judge is bound to sentence a defendant pursuant to the parties’ agreement (absent favorable changes in sentencing guidelines or to rectify a Constitutional violation).
In many federal cases, it is in the defendant’s best interest to accept a plea deal. However, sentencing is tricky, because the potential sentencing range can be extremely wide. Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas help limit that gap, as well as provide the defendant with a much clearer since of the sentence they can expect.