Archive for the ‘Courts’ Category
The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Constitution further guarantees that the accused will have the assistance of counsel and may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers unanimously determines that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
So what about plea bargains? There’s no judge or jury involved in that process. Instead, a plea agreement is reached when both the prosecutor and defense sit down and hammer out a really good deal for both sides, right? Well, not quite.
A plea bargain is about as one-sided as it gets, and the side that wins nearly every single time is that of the prosecution. In fact, less than 3% of all federal criminal cases make it to trial. This translates into a whopping 97% of all federal cases being decided by a plea bargain. And, it is the prosecutor who decides how much time the defendant will serve behind bars, not a judge or jury of anyone’s peers.
The defense is at a huge disadvantage at the onset of the process because prosecutors hold all the cards—secret grand jury testimony and evidence, crime scene evidence and lab test results, witness statements, and the authority to charge the accused with the most severe offense he believes he can prove…UNLESS the defendant agrees to plead GUILTY in exchange for a charge of a lessor offense, which would result in serving far less time in prison than had he been found guilty of the more severe charge. In many, if not most cases, “far less time” could be a decade or even more.
The way a federal plea bargain works, in short, is like this.
1. Police conduct an investigation and hand over their collected information and evidence to a prosecutor.
2. The prosecutor presents his/her case to the Grand Jury who almost always issues a “true bill,” meaning there is enough evidence/probable cause to proceed with the trial. After all, the only people testifying before them are witnesses for the prosecution. The defense is not a part of the Grand Jury process.
3. The suspect is arrested and incarcerated. A favorite prosecution trick is to have agents/officers make the arrest on a Friday afternoon. This is so the suspect will have to sit in jail throughout the entire weekend, until judges/magistrates return to the bench on the following Monday to hold/conduct a bond hearing (holiday weekends are a bonus because courts are also closed on Mondays). This provides the defendant a bit of eye-opening time behind bars before having an attorney appointed to their case. When Monday morning finally rolls around, many defendants are willing to do or say almost anything to return home, including agreeing to a quick plea deal.
4. Bond is either set or denied.
5. Prosecutor and defense attorney meet either in person or by phone.
6. Prosecutor offers a deal—a lessor charge if the defendant agrees to plead guilty, or face the top charge possible, along with the standard obstruction of justice for not accepting responsibility (not pleading guilty) with as much time in prison as the law allows. Obstruction, by the way, could result in an additional sentence of ten years. And that’s on top of the time for the original charge.
7. Defense attorney presents the “deal” to his client—either plead guilty to the lessor charge and serve time in federal prison for ONLY three years, for example, or refuse the deal and face the possibility of being found guilty anyway, but receive a sentence of twenty years in prison. And, this deal is open for discussion only at that moment. There’s very little time given to consider it. It’s either now or never in most cases. Of course, prosecutors will most likely accept a deal at a later time to avoid taking the case to trial, but the first offer is always the best offer. The longer the wait the more time the defendant will have to serve in prison.
8. The deal is almost always accepted. As I stated earlier, this is so in approximately 97% of all federal criminal cases, including deal acceptance by defendants who are innocent of the crimes for which they’re charged. These folks plead guilty because they’d rather agree to a shorter time in prison rather than face decades behind bars, or, in some cases, the possibility of receiving the death penalty…for a crime they didn’t commit.
In 2012, the average sentence for drug offenders (in federal court) who agreed to plea deals was five years and four months. Defendants who rolled the dice and went to trial were sentenced to an average of sixteen years. It’s a “no-brainer” decision and prosecutors know it and they rely on it. And, a plea deal typically includes a “no appeal” stipulation.
A fair and voluntary system? What do you think? Before you answer, consider this. Of the 2.2 million people in American prisons, over 2 million of those individuals are there as a result of a plea bargain devised by a prosecutor who also determined the amount of time the defendant was to serve behind bars. No jury. No judge. All prosecutor.
Some have said “having our day in court” is a thing of the past. What about you? Do you agree with the current method of plea bargaining?
As a sitting judge on a general trial court for twenty years, I ran across many things that made me wonder if anyone knew anything about the law. There is, of course, no secret that lawyers and their co-conspirators in all levels of government work daily and diligently to make the law incomprehensible. (CPAs are also guilty, but that’s another blog post.) So if we lawyers make things difficult, we shouldn’t complain when people don’t understand it, right? Wrong.
Here are but three of many things that make me growl.
(1) “A divorce (or dissolution of marriage or whatever your state calls it) is not a lawsuit.”
This one baffles me. Once I was speaking to a non-lawyer and I said, “John sued Mary for divorce.” The fellow answered, “No, he didn’t sue her. He filed a divorce. That’s different.”
If you are married and you do not want to be married, the only legal way I know of to accomplish that is to file a lawsuit asking the court to unhitch you. You must file a petition (or complaint or whatever your state calls it) and the court that hears divorce cases. That makes you the plaintiff (or petitioner or whatever your state calls it). The other party to the lawsuit (your soon to be ex-spouse) is called the defendant (or respondent or whatever your state calls it).
In some states, if you’ve agreed on everything, you can file a notice of settlement and some judge will sign a judgment, declaring you and your sweetie to no longer be married.
If you can’t agree, there could be a knock-down, drag-out courtroom battle that concerns everything from child custody to who gets the matched salt-and-pepper shakers from Hawaii.
That, my friends, is a real lawsuit, the same as if it was Standard Oil and the EPA.
(Note: I heard a divorce case where two judges were getting a divorce. They couldn’t agree on the disposition of a manure spreader. [Insert manure spreader joke here.] I decided it for them and they haven’t complained since.)
(2) “If you have a will, you don’t need to go through probate court.”
As far as I know, there is no such thing as an automatic will anywhere in any state or territory of the United States. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’d love to see how that works! And, keep reading.)
When you die, there are two ways your stuff (if you have any stuff leftover from paying taxes all your life) is split one of two ways: You have a will or the government decides where your stuff goes.
This one I shouldn’t get too upset about because of the growing prevalence of trusts and other non-probate transfers of property. Such things keep you away from the probate division of the court to some degree or the other (depending on your state).
Free legal advice: Go to a competent—meaning you’ve done your research on the person—estate planning lawyer. Get a financial power of attorney, a healthcare power of attorney, a will, a trust, and advice on how transfer/pay on death works in your state. This can save you a lot of money and heartache. If you don’t care where your stuff goes and you don’t care if you have heartache and grief, then don’t do anything or use forms you found on the Internet.
And there’s no “reading of the will” except on soap operas. In fact, after you make out all your estate-planning documents, you should give photocopies to your potential heirs—you don’t have heirs until you die—and make sure they know how to get to your safe place after you pass. Protect your valuable documents from fire, flood, wind, earthquake, and critters (four- and two-legged).
(3) “Bail and bond mean the same thing.”
BAIL is generally how much the judge wants before you get out of jail and BOND is generally how the bail is made. Don’t ever expect journalists to get this right. And judges and lawyers often confuse it also.
The best way to knock this one flat is to give you three scenarios.
ONE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “You’ve always shown up in the past when you’ve been arrested so I’ll let you out on your own recognizance and we’ll take your word for it that you’ll be back for your trial.” This is a recognizance bond (or signature bond or whatever your state calls it).
TWO: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 cash only bail.” Danny’s decrepit grandmother who barely scrapes by on Social Security, sells her great-grandmother’s diamond ring and forks over $10,000 in cash to the court and gets a receipt made in Danny Defendant’s name. When he shows up, she gets the dough back. If he doesn’t show up, the government keeps the money. This is cash bond (or whatever your state calls it).
THREE: Danny Defendant has been arrested for a felony and the judge says, “$10,000 bail.” Chico leaves the Little League game he’s sponsoring and hustles down to the jail. Chico sells Danny a bail bond for $1000 which is paid for by Danny’s decrepit grandmother who gets a receipt made out in Danny’s name. If Danny shows up when the court tells him to, then the bond is cancelled. If Danny does not show up when the court tells him to, the bond is forfeited and Chico sues the decrepit Grandma for all she’s worth since Danny is gone. This is a bail bond (or whatever your state calls it).
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After two decades on the bench, Bill Hopkins captures readers with his Judge Rosswell Carew murder mysteries. How does a judge manage to wrangle his way into investigating so many crimes? And can he do it without crossing into the dark side himself? Find out by reading the complete series beginning with Courting Murder, followed by River Mourn and Bloody Earth.
Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced. A book of collected poetry, Moving Into Forever, is available on Amazon. Bill is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dramatists Guild, Horror Writers Association, Missouri Writers Guild, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. Bill is also a photographer who has sold work in the United States, Canada, and Europe. He and his wife, Sharon (also a published writer), live in Marble Hill, Missouri, with their dogs and cats. Besides writing, Bill and Sharon are involved in collecting and restoring Camaros.
Please take a moment to visit Judge Bill Hopkins at www.judgebillhopkins.com