I was viewing a televised case, the Judge asks the defendant “have any threats or promises been made to you to deliver this plea” before the defendant delivers their guilty plea as part of a plea bargain. I was wondering, how is a plea bargain/plea agreement exempt from being considered a “promise” as the judge words it?

  • 1
    I think the gist is that of "why would a plea deal not be considered coercion", as a plea deal logically appears to be. We are all aware of the reasons for plea deals, but they are questionably immoral. In the UK, there are no such provisions, and the morally ambiguous addendum "(other than promises in a plea agreement)" should emphasise the clear compromise between justice and cost(s) and the agendas served.
    – dan
    Nov 21, 2022 at 4:06
  • I think it's implied that it's referring to any agreements with any parties that are not the state. Plea deals are about saving resources and making future arrests, a state interest.
    – user608
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:38
  • The plea bargain doesn't necessarily have to contain any specific side conditions. Every other episode of Law and Order seemed to involve someone being charged with first-degree murder being provided the option of pleading guilty to second-degree murder. The "promise" was simply that they would receive the relatively milder sentence mandated for a second-degree murder conviction, rather than risk being found guilty of first-degree murder and receiving a harsher sentence. But that's all explicit in the fact that the plea being entered was for a charge of second-, not first-, degree murder.
    – chepner
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:40
  • @chepner: If someone were accused of first degree murder, but asked to plead guity to e.g. reckless operation of industrial equipment, would anything preclude the state from accepting that plea but then still prosecuting the person for first degree murder on the basis that even if the person decided to confess to some other action involving careless use of the industrial equipment, that is a separate crime from the murder of which they still stand accused?
    – supercat
    Nov 21, 2022 at 18:36
  • AFAIK, the plea bargain has to be submitted as a replacement for the original charges, not just something new the state pulls out of thin air.
    – chepner
    Nov 21, 2022 at 18:42

2 Answers 2


This is covered by Rules of Federal Criminal Procedure Rule 11, which says that

Before accepting a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court must address the defendant personally in open court and determine that the plea is voluntary and did not result from force, threats, or promises (other than promises in a plea agreement).

The judge is not required to include a disclaimer (like "other than the plea deal itself") in interviewing the defendant. By asking the question in an unqualified way, the judge will decide whether there were promises made that are outside the scope of the plea bargain.

  • So when there in fact is a plea bargain, is the defendant expected to respond to the unqualified query with a description of the deal? Nov 21, 2022 at 15:44
  • 2
    The judge expects the defendant to answer truthfully. The judge has a different relationship to the defendant that the prosecutor, who can cut the defendant off in mid sentence. The judge's remit is to determine whether there has been improper influence. If you add a link to the video of the interaction, we could comment on their interpersonal interactions., but I suspect only OP know where that link is.
    – user6726
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:08
  • 2
    @JohnBollinger The plea bargain has to be entered on the record, so somebody (the judge or prosecutor) would have orally described it earlier. A typical exchange might be: Prosecutor: "The People offer a plea deal to disturbing the peace instead of assault and battery"... Judge: "Do you accept this plea offer?" Defendant: "Yes" Judge: "Other than this offer, have any threats or promises been made to you in exchange for your guilty plea?" Defendant: "No." If the judge didn't qualify the question, the defendant could respond: "No, just the plea offer"
    – user71659
    Nov 21, 2022 at 23:27

Because in the United States, the legal system is designed to handicap the government in criminal trials. Plea Deals happen because it is supposed to be in the best interest of both sides to handle it out of court, but that best interest tends to favor the government's position more than the defendant's position. Specifically, a trial costs money and prosecutors do not have a budget to litigate every crime that crosses their desk (especially at the state level, which is where the bulk of the crimes in the U.S. are handled). The plea bargain is a quid pro quo in that, if the defendant agrees to certain terms, the prosecutor will go easy on them and given them reduced sentences and charge them for lesser crimes than what they were busted for (Almost everyone who does jail time for drug possession charges plead down from "Possession with intent to sell" charges... there are bigger fish to fry than putting a college kid who has a single dime bag he intends for personal use in jail for years after all.).

Because the plea deal is a net win for the prosecutor (a criminal is punished and they save money doing it) they would prefer to have plea deals over going to trial in all cases... which means they would be motivated to corruptly influence the defendant to enter the plea deal.

Even if a deal is made, the judge has to accept it for it to be enforced. Thus, if he suspects the deal was not made in good faith or if one party entered into the deal for reasons other than their own free will, they can not accept the deal. And since plea deals are written and offered by the prosecutor, they are going to be the source of any dirty tricks.

All that said, the question is fairly standard. A judge will ask the defendant the same question no matter what plea he/she enters. It's just not as likely that someone was forced to plea "Not Guilty" against their will.

  • As with Dan's comment, I don't think this addresses the question. Incidentally, plea deals also occasionally show up because the government isn't sure if they can win the case, and yeah, sometimes there is an implicit threat of "We may not be able to win, but we will smear your name by publicizing that you're on trial for kitty sex crimes, so just take the plea deal".
    – SCD
    Nov 21, 2022 at 15:26
  • I think this is a good addendum to the currently top-voted answer, but you would have to read between the lines to get the actual answer out of this part.
    – Grault
    Nov 21, 2022 at 15:43
  • @SCD Typically, in that situation, the prosecutor might not be able to win on a charge, but can win on a lesser and included charges (Of course, them not showing this is their reasoning is fine, and just because they are considering the higher charge doesn't mean they can't drop the initial high charge to begin with and prosecute the charge they tried to get the defendant to agree too (and go for higher sentencing).
    – hszmv
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:41
  • @SCD And while the media threat isn't solid (most crimes aren't going to get media attention anyway) in some cases, they may charge a misdemeanor crime instead of a felony, which will affect certain reporting requirements (I.e. Where it is allowed, most job applications ask if you've been convicted of only felonies and do not care about misdemeanor charges.).
    – hszmv
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:44
  • @hszmv: My use of the "kitty sex crimes" was a slightly veiled reference to how it's been used in PA. We had a recent scandal involving people who plea bargained for sex offense charges with minors where the state had to 'fess up to that they'd gotten pleas by claiming that it would keep the charge private, whereupon the people who plea bargained got put on the sex offense registry and had no avenue for appeal since there was never a trial.
    – SCD
    Nov 21, 2022 at 16:50

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