Clinic Report: The mercy of the court

Last week I had what will probably be my last appearance in court as a clinic student attorney. We were scheduled for a trial but our case was pretty weak (and got weaker the more I got into it) so our big hope was that the gov’t would not be ready and the judge would dismiss for lack of prosecution. ((I know this varies by jurisdiction, but in D.C. it’s very common for judges to dismiss cases (misdemeanors especially) for lack of prosecution. I don’t have numbers, but I’d guess the number of misdemeanors that get “dwipped” is easily more than 20%.)) Unfortunately, the gov’t was ready so my client faced a choice: Go to trial with a weak case and hope the judge would see things his way, or plead to the information and hope the judge would be lenient in sentencing. ((This was an especially sad choice considering the fact that this trial was originally scheduled about a month ago but on that day my client was about an hour late to court. When he finally showed up the gov’t had to admit it wasn’t ready and we moved to dismiss. The judge said she would have dismissed if my client hadn’t been late, but she granted the gov’t a continuance to punish my client for being late. Yeah, that really sucked.))

The charge was PDP (possession of drug paraphernalia). The gov’t had an officer ready to testify that my client had made spontaneous statements along the lines of, a) “I am a drug user,” and b) “I am carrying a pipe.” And, of course, the officer was going to testify that my client consented to be searched. Plus, the gov’t had a “drug expert” ready to testify that the item seized was definitely a “stem” or crack pipe (this despite the fact that they had done no lab analysis to show it had any drug residue or anything). So it was going to come down to my client’s word against the word of a cop and a “drug expert.” Not so good.

In explaining this choice to my client I tried to make the trial option sound as good as I could. If we’d had another judge, I might have argued to him that he had nothing to lose by going to trial. However, this particular judge has a well-known reputation for rewarding defendants who plead guilty with much more lenient sentences than she gives to those who go to trial. I don’t think that’s fair, but I understand her desire to encourage “efficiency.” Whatever the case, I explained to my client that if we went to trial we had a small chance of winning, but more likely he’d be found guilty and then, odds were, he’d get at least a slightly harsher sentence than he would if he just admitted guilt.

So, not very surprisingly, the scheduled trial turned into a guilty plea. I cringed and had to bite my tongue as the prosecutor read her highly exaggerated version of what she would have proven had the case gone to trial. It’s hard not to want to interrupt to point out that all the prosecutor need say is that the government would have proven that my client was found in possession of drug paraphernalia and that all the rest was just bullshit to prejudice the judge against my client. Of course, unless the prosecutor just outright lies, objecting to the reading of the “information” will generally do you absolutely no good. So, instead, you just stand there and bite your tongue and wish you had just one more bit of evidence so that you could have gone to trial and proven that cocky prosecutor wrong.

After the plea itself, I gave a short (30-second) argument that my client was a great, upstanding guy who simply had no need for any of the services provided by supervised probation, and that, therefore, the most appropriate sentence would be a short period of unsupervised probation and/or a small fine. The gov’t countered w/great emphasis and drama that my client obviously had a serious drug problem and definitely needed regular drug testing and treatment; therefore he should get at least a year of supervised probation w/those conditions and any others the probation officer might deem appropriate.

So what did the judge do? She gave my client a $50 fine. That’s it. Done. My client and I were both thrilled!

Lessons learned: First, there are apparently times a guilty plea really is the best way to resolve a case. Second, if you hear from everyone who would know that a certain judge is known for this or that, pay attention—those people probably know what they’re talking about. Finally, judicial discretion is great—except when it’s not. [tags]clinic, pdp, guilty plea[/tags]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *