Suppose you are charged with theft of trade secrets. If you decide to plead guilty, can the government add further charges or change the existing ones after seeing that you've pleaded guilty? For example, because you've pleaded guilty, can the prosecutors add counts of unlawful possession of trade secrets, or lying to federal agents, or obstruction of justice, or other charges?

Once they add those charges, and because you pleaded guilty to the first, are you now also considered to be pleading guilty to the additional charges?

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    No, you plead gully to what you are currently accused of. Nothing else.
    – user207421
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 11:16
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    Related: The Elaborate Pantomime of The Federal Guilty Plea Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 14:25
  • @HopelessN00b Wow that was an interesting read, thanks for that.
    – user14142
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:49
  • Not that it really affects the question, but I think that trade secrets are a civil, rather than criminal matter. Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 20:22
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    @EJP No, you plead guilty to what you've been accused of and admit that you did. That doesn't have to be everything you're accused of. Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 20:34

3 Answers 3


Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 11(b)(1)), a federal court may not accept a guilty plea without first addressing the defendant personally in open court. During this address, there are 15 things that the court must ensure that the defendant understands (if they apply in the case); one of these is the nature of every charge the defendant is pleading guilty to. Prosecutors can't sneak stuff into the guilty plea that the defendant doesn't know about.

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    Though this seems a reasonable reasonable answer as a first step I wonder about further steps. If you plead guilty to theft of trade secrets then no, you have not plead guilty to unlawful possession of trade secrets. But you have provided proof of some degree of possession of trade secrets by pleading guilty to their theft. Can the prosecutor add additional charges and use your previous guilty plead as proof? Sure they can't claim you pleaded guilty to the second charge, but can they accusate you after you plead guilty to the 1st charge? Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:39
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    @JoseAntonioDuraOlmos Possession would be a lesser included charge of theft, so it couldn't be charged as an additional crime. Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:47
  • @JoseAntonioDuraOlmos yes thank you that was the other part of the question, thanks for bringing it up.
    – user14142
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 16:50
  • @Unicorn13601 IANAL, but depending on the consent of the court it might be better to plead nolo contendere because pleading guilty in a criminal case makes further civil lawsuits easier. I.E. Say you're being charged with criminal assault for punching someone. Pleading guilty in the criminal court makes it easier to get a conviction for personal injury in civil court because you've admitted guilt for the punch. Whereas nolo contendere does not establish guilt in the same way, because you haven't actually admitted guilt, just that you accept the consequences (there are exceptions). Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 21:39

One pleads guilty to specific charges. If the government brings additional charges after a defendant pleads, the defendant's existing plea will not apply to the new charges.

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    This makes sense, but (dumb layperson question) could the guilty plea to the original charges be brought up as evidence supporting new charges? E.g. taking the OP's example at face value, if you pled guilty to theft of trade secrets, could the prosecutor then file charges for possession of trade secrets and make the argument that you pled guilty to stealing secrets, therefore as far as the court is concerned you did steal those secrets, therefore you must have possessed the secrets, therefore you're guilty of possession? (Should this be a separate question?)
    – David Z
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 10:27
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    @DavidZ Not in the British legal system. No evidence as to prior convictions can be introduced prior to the verdict. Only as 'anything known' as to sentencing.
    – user207421
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 11:17
  • @DavidZ I think in the US that double jeopardy protection would normally prohibit subsequent prosecution for the same act, even for different charges, but if a distinct act came to light it might be possible. I'm not certain, however, and a new question might be in order.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 15:21
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    @phoog that doesn't even work for state vs federal. If they really loathe a defendant, sometimes Federal prosecutors will sit back and see how the State's trial goes, and if not well, then they drop new Federal charges. Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 18:17
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    @Harper true, the dual sovereign theory does allow both state and federal prosecution for the same criminal act, but the same sovereign (i.e., the same prosecutor's office, either state or federal) cannot retry someone once jeopardy is attached.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 22:48

As the other answers indicate you don't plead guilty (or not) to indictment (or criminal information). Instead for each specific charge in an indictment you're asked whether you plead guilty or not. So if federal prosecutors somehow added additional charges to an indictment, you wouldn't automatically be pleading guilty to those as well. However prosecutors aren't able to add charges (or otherwise amend) a federal indictment after it's been made anyways. If they want to add new charges they have to get an new indictment, which would supersede the old one and invalidate any previous pleas. You'd be able to plead guilty or not knowing the all the crimes you're being accused of in that indictment.

Furthermore the principle of double jeopardy limits the ability of prosecutors to use multiple indictments with multiple trials to get around this. Basically, there can be only one trial that decides any given fact that could determine your guilt of any federal crime. So prosecutors can't try theft of trade secrets and illegal possession of trade secrets (not actually a distinct federal crime as far as I can tell) separately if both crimes require proving that you had possession of the same trade secret. Similarly they can't try you separately for lying to federal agents (making false statements) if you're being accused of lying about being in possession of the trade secret.

On the other hand if you were accused of lying about some fact not related to trade secrets offence (yet somehow still a material fact) then they could indict and try you separately. In this separate trial they wouldn't be able to use the fact that you pleaded guilty to theft of trade secrets since it wouldn't be relevant and your previous bad acts can't generally be used as evidence against you.

Finally nothing prevents a state prosecutor charging you with state crimes related the federal trade secrets crime you've pleaded guilty to. The dual sovereignty doctrine means you can be placed "in jeopardy" for the same offence in both federal and state courts, or even multiple state courts if the offence spans multiple states. However in practice the overloaded state justice systems are more than happy to leave prosecution of crimes to federal prosecutors wherever possible. They can't afford to waste resources prosecuting people who have pleaded guilty and are being punished for their crime in a federal prison. Federal prosecutors are better funded but the "Petite" policy limits their ability to prosecute an offence that's already been dealt with in a state court.

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