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June 14, 2023

Highlighting data on how very few federal defendants go to trial (and even fewer who get acquitted)

The federal indictment of former Prez Trump seems sure to bring every more attention to the dynamics, and perhaps the day-to-day realities, of the federal criminal justice system.  To that end, John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center has this notable new item headlined "Fewer than 1% of defendants in federal criminal cases were acquitted in 2022."  I recommend the full (short) piece, and here are excerpts:

Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty this week to federal criminal charges related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents after his departure from the White House in 2021.  The unprecedented charges against Trump and his subsequent plea raise the question: How common is it for defendants in federal criminal cases to plead not guilty, go to trial and ultimately be acquitted?

In fiscal year 2022, only 290 of 71,954 defendants in federal criminal cases – about 0.4% – went to trial and were acquitted, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the latest available statistics from the federal judiciary. Another 1,379 went to trial and were found guilty (1.9%).

The overwhelming majority of defendants in federal criminal cases that year did not go to trial at all.  About nine-in-ten (89.5%) pleaded guilty, while another 8.2% had their case dismissed at some point in the judicial process, according to the data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts....

Trump’s case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, where acquittal rates look similar to the national average.  In fiscal 2022, only 12 of 1,944 total defendants in the Southern District of Florida – about 0.6% – were acquitted at trial. As was the case nationally, the vast majority of defendants in Florida’s Southern District (86.2%) pleaded guilty that year, while 10.7% had their cases dismissed.

It’s not clear from the federal judiciary’s statistics how many other defendants nationally or in the Southern District of Florida faced the same or similar charges that Trump is facing or how those cases ended.

Broadly speaking, however, the charges against Trump are rare. In fiscal 2022, more than eight-in-ten federal criminal defendants in the United States faced charges related to one of four other broad categories of crime: drug offenses (31%), immigration offenses (25%), firearms and explosives offenses (16%) or property offenses (11%).  In Florida’s Southern District, too, more than eight-in-ten defendants faced charges related to these four categories.

June 14, 2023 at 09:30 PM | Permalink


Would love to know the real story (or more likely, stories) behind the 8.2% dismissals.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 14, 2023 11:26:11 PM

Bill - I would like to know the story behind the 8.2% as well. In my experience, I only saw dismissals in two types of situations, the death of the defendant (suicide, homicide, or accidental overdose) prior to trial, and in a couple rare occasions the defendant was deported (voluntarily) back to their home country and the government agreed to dismiss (these were low level felony cases).

Posted by: atomicfrog | Jun 15, 2023 6:39:00 AM

just my opinion (I install fence, certainly not a lawyer) but I think selective prosecution is and would be a good defense. I know the defendant, in the Eleventh Circuit, carries a heavy burden, however, biden, pence and hillary did the exact same thing, and they were not prosecuted.

Posted by: Dave W. Holland | Jun 15, 2023 12:41:29 PM

I wonder if they count by person or by case. We sometimes negotiate a plea to a separate information and the indictment is then dismissed. A fair number of tickets (CVB) violations also get dismissed. Material witness complaints also do not result in conviction.

Posted by: defendergirl | Jun 15, 2023 2:13:42 PM

Mr. Holland: Pence and Biden did not do the same thing. Biden voluntarily disclosed documents he had inadvertently kept. Pence turned over everything he found after a review. Neither of them refused to cooperate, flouted a subpoena, intentionally moved boxes, lied to their own lawyers and/or displayed top secret documents to people without clearance.

Posted by: defendergirl | Jun 15, 2023 2:16:09 PM

The charges against Trump might be rare as a percent of total cases, but they are not exactly uncommon. Both Democrats and Republicans have been prosecuted under the relevant statutes including the Obama DOJ prosecuting David Petraeus after he left his position as CIA Director for mishandling of confidential information.

But, as with any criminal charge, intent is always an issue which is why Secretary Clinton and Vice-President Pence were not charged. While no decision has been made on President Biden (with the caveat that DOJ would merely put a charging decision on hold while President Biden was in office if they believed that was a case as Special Counsel Robert Mueller did with President Trump on obstruction charges), it seems likely that intent is missing based on the reported facts about President Biden. President Trump, unfortunately for him, has made a lot of statements showing that he knowingly possessed the national security documents which makes it rather hard not to charge him.

So, any selective prosecution argument would almost certainly fail at the appellate level because the proposed comparables are not actually similar.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 15, 2023 2:43:48 PM

"But, as with any criminal charge, intent is always an issue which is why Secretary Clinton and Vice-President Pence were not charged."

Clinton set up a private server through which all SoS emails went. This was done with a corrupt purpose--to evade the Federal Records Act. To say that she didn't know (and that wasn't the relevant mens rea anyway) that classified stuff was going through her server is just ridiculous. At some point, you just have to call BS. And she also had the server wiped.

defendergirl, this is claptrap: "Biden voluntarily disclosed documents he had inadvertently kept." He had items in his possession that he got as a Senator. That means he knowingly took stuff only to be reviewed in an SCIF.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 15, 2023 6:31:26 PM

Trump is probably also looking at a second Federal criminal indictment concerning the events leading up to the January 6, 2023 attack on the Capitol.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 15, 2023 9:18:58 PM

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