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Circumventing Discretion: Seth Williams’ De Facto (C) Plea

On June 30, 2017 by Schnader

On June 28, 2017, then Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams faced a twenty-nine count indictment with a potential term of imprisonment of at least twenty years. By 1:00 a.m. the next day, he ensured that he would serve no more than a five-year prison term.

Williams is scheduled to be sentenced on October 24, 2017, for one count of bribery, knowing he will receive a sentence of no more than five years, which is far less than what he could, and perhaps would, have received otherwise.

Defendants in federal cases facing exposure like Williams often seek to limit or control their sentencing exposure by entering into what is known as a (C) Plea-named after Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C). Under a (C) Plea, the prosecution and defense reach a binding plea agreement regarding a specific sentence or sentencing range for the defendant. The potential issue, however, is that the agreement does not become binding on the sentencing judge until the court accepts the plea, which it does not have to do. Therefore, a defendant that takes a (C) Plea will still face a significant degree of uncertainty as to whether the court will accept the agreed-upon sentence and what his or her sentence will actually be.

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