When Michael Cohen signed his plea agreement last Tuesday at the Southern District of New York, he was affixing his signature to one of the most important documents in recent memory: a sworn admission that he conspired with the president of the United States to violate a federal law to get him elected. But the document Cohen signed was in many ways pure boilerplate, the same language used in hundreds of pleas in the Southern District every year. Our office represents a lot of defendants in the Southern District and many of those cases end in plea deals like the one Michael Cohen received. So here is a quick primer on what the plea agreement means.
First, even though there is an agreement, no one knows what Cohen’s sentence will be. He is out on bail and he is probably hoping never to see the inside of a prison cell. There are sentencing considerations set forth in the agreement (much more on those below), but they do not bind the judge. Unlike in state court, federal defendants almost always plead guilty without knowing what their punishment will be.
Second, the document Cohen signed is not a cooperation agreement. A cooperation agreement is an agreement where the defendant promises to plead guilty and cooperate fully with the government, providing information and making himself available whenever prosecutors want to speak to him (in federal practice, we use the term “government” to mean the prosecutors). In return, the prosecutors promise to file a “5K motion” — a letter that allows the sentencing judge to avoid any applicable mandatory minimum sentence and may urge the judge to sentence below the sentencing Guidelines. In Cohen’s case, there is no mandatory minimum, so the 5K motion will not be as significant as it would be in, say, a drug trafficking case. When a mandatory minimum is charged, and the defendant is convicted (either by guilty plea or after trial), the only way to avoid the minimum sentence is by getting the government to file a 5K letter. In other words, because the crimes that Cohen was charged with do not carry a mandatory minimum, Cohen can still cooperate and get the full benefit he would have received with a cooperation agreement, but with fewer obligations. He might very well be cooperating, just without an agreement. If he is, he is putting his trust in the office prosecuting him. Seven government attorneys were listed on the plea agreement. He is trusting them to urge the judge to lower his sentence if he is helpful to the government. That’s fine, as long as everyone gets along as they work together to build a case against the president of the United States.