Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's only a misdemeanor

The American prison population is roughly two million. That's more than the total number of inmates in all of Europe.

But, as Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff points out in her recent law review article "Misdemeanors," most analyses of the American criminal (in)justice system ignore the plight of those accused of misdemeanors.

For every new felony charged filed in the US, there are approximately ten new misdemeanor cases. And most of these cases are disposed of quickly with pleas for time served. No one spends much time discussing the consequences of a misdemeanor conviction. Some attorneys can't even be bothered to do a half-assed investigation of the facts before pleading their clients out. And judges just want to get the cases off their dockets.

What we end up with is a system that brings new blood into our courthouses on a daily basis. These new defendants are taught by those who work within the system that a misdemeanor conviction is no big deal. They learn the lingo. They learn the drill.

But what happens when that plea of guilty in exchange for time served means you're not eligible for public housing? What about if that plea results in a driver license suspension? How about being ineligible for financial aid when you get to college? And what about the effect a conviction might have on your chances of finding suitable employment?

No one pays much attention to the problem of wrongful convictions in misdemeanor cases. That's probably because most misdemeanor convictions end in probated sentences of less than two years. No one's going to be locked away for the rest of their life. It takes longer to get a misdemeanor case up on appeal than it does to finish the sentence.

Judges relax the rules of evidence for the state. Problems with the administration of roadside coordination exercises go to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. Nevermind that the NHTSA manual tells us, in bold-faced, all caps, that the failure to administer the exercises properly renders them useless.

When it comes to forced blood draws on misdemeanor DWI cases, the contempt judges have for due process comes across loud and clear. Judges find nothing wrong with the notion of volunteering to sign search warrants ordering blood draws. They find nothing wrong with being part of a "team" to clean up the streets. What's that you say? The affidavit is full of conclusory statements without providing the factual bases for the conclusions? Ah, hell, motion to suppress denied.

For most of our clients, going to trial on a misdemeanor case is one of the most important moments in their lives. They've never been in trouble like this before - and they're facing a permanent black mark on their records if convicted. But, in the name of judicial economy, you get 20 minutes to question the jury panel. Twenty minutes to discuss the presumption of innocence, burden of proof and the elements of the offense. Mustn't bust the panel - it doesn't matter how much an answer reveals a bias or an inability to follow the law; let's just rehab them at the bench.

Fifteen minutes should suffice for opening and closing. And we've got that pattern jury charge, too. You know, the one that no one's bothered challenging for years now.

But, you know, it is only a misdemeanor, after all.

H/T Doug Berman

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