Today, the prosecutors in the case against Lori Loughlin filed with with the court a signed copy of her plea agreement, thereby indicating that Mr. Loughlin intends to plead guilty in connection with the “Varsity Blues” case involving college admissions fraud. (Her actual plea hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow, May 22, via videoconference). The agreement that she has entered into is somewhat rare in federal court, and has certain advantages for her.
Normally, in federal court, when a defendant chooses to plead guilty, he or she enters into a plea agreement with the prosecutors to establish certain terms and parameters for the sentencing. Plea agreements look like contracts and are usually at least five single-spaced pages long. A defendant acknowledges in the document that he/she is pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily, and that he/she cannot take back the guilty plea once it has been entered before the court at a plea hearing. The agreements usually set forth the minimum and maximum possible penalties for the charged offenses, so that the defendant can acknowledge that he/she understands them. Also, a defendant agrees to plead guilty to certain charges in the indictment, and admits to certain conduct (for example, an amount of money fraudulently stolen, or a quantity of narcotics trafficked) that impacts the sentencing. Then, the parties to the plea agreement (the prosecutor and the defendant) agree to certain other factors (such as the defendant’s role in the offense, for example) that may establish where on the sentencing chart (for the Federal Sentencing Guidelines) that defendant’s sentence is likely to be. But, the agreements explicitly state that the ultimate decision as to the defendant’s sentence will be up to the sentencing judge to determine, based upon these established facts and parameters within the plea agreement, as well as the judge’s own considerations of the defendant and the defendant’s crime.
Here, in Ms. Loughlin’s case, the sentence has already been established by the agreement. This fact makes the agreement quite unusual for federal court, though hardly unprecedented. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), Ms. Loughlin has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and in exchange, she will receive a sentence of two months in prison, a fine of $150,000.00, 24 months of supervised release with 100 hours of community service, and a special assessment of $100. The prosecution also will agree to dismiss the remaining charges against Ms. Loughlin and not pursue any further charges in connection with what it knows about this affair. This all depends, however, upon the court accepting the agreement and Ms. Loughlin’s guilty plea.
Basically, pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C), the court has to decide whether to accept this agreement with these terms before it will officially count. Tomorrow, during the sentencing hearing, the judge will ask Ms. Loughlin (with her attorney) whether she understands the agreement and its terms, and whether she is pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily. The judge will then likely ask the prosecutor why the government feels this disposition is appropriate. Then, in the ensuing months, the prosecutor and the defense attorneys will submit written memoranda to the judge about why this disposition is appropriate. The defense memoranda will likely include a statement from Ms. Loughlin and supporting “character letters” from friends and family and people in the community. Ms. Loughlin will also undergo a biographical interview by a federal probation officer (usually a social worker) to be used to prepare a pre-sentence report about Ms. Loughlin for the judge. At the sentencing hearing, the court will indicate once and for all whether it considers the disposition to be appropriate. Assuming the judge does in fact find the disposition appropriate, the judge will sentence Ms. Loughlin as set forth in the agreement. In response, the prosecutor will move to dismiss the remaining criminal charges against Ms. Loughlin. If the court rejects Ms. Loughlin’s plea agreement, then the matter will start over as if Ms. Loughlin had not pleaded guilty.
These Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas can be advantageous in that they tend to provide more certainty for the parties. Normally, defendants plead guilty and find out their sentence at the sentencing date; sometimes the possible sentencing ranges can vary enormously. As a former state prosecutor accustomed to negotiating plea deals with fixed and expected penalties, it has always been somewhat confusing to me about how reluctant federal prosecutors are when it comes to these types of agreements. Federal prosecutors in New York and elsewhere routinely say “our office just doesn’t do that,” when asked about possible Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas. For whatever reason, most federal prosecutors just feel far more comfortable having courts decide upon appropriate sentences, rather than negotiate them themselves. Regardless, it seems highly unlikely here that Ms. Loughlin’s plea agreement will be rejected, or that she will not receive the expected sentence. The terms are not out of line with what other defendants in the “Varsity Blues” case have already received, and she might have received a sentence like this one with a “typical” open-ended plea agreement, anyway. Indeed, it might have been possible for her to avoid a prison sentence altogether in this case, but in light of the sentences handed out to other defendants by this court, it was probably in Ms. Loughlin’s best interests to eliminate the downside risk of receiving a more significant prison sentence by negotiating for this Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea.
If you or a loved one have been charged with federal mail or wire fraud, you should strongly consider contacting an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. Matthew Galluzzo, a former Manhattan prosecutor, regularly represents federal criminal defendants in federal courts across the country, and is a member of the Criminal Justice Act panels for both the Southern and Eastern District Courts of New York.