Monday, June 30, 2014

First the plea, then the admonishments

On Friday members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers' Association stood outside Judge Michael Fields' courtroom handing out 3x5 cards listing the rights a criminal defendant has under the 5th and 6th Amendments. They did this to protect unrepresented defendants making their first appearance from Judge Fields.

If you are taken into custody in Harris County and aren't bailed out immediately you will probably find yourself standing in a room staring at a video monitor as a magistrate informs you that it would be best if you kept your damn mouth shut. He then asks if you want to plead guilty. If not, a plea of not guilty is entered and you are returned to your holding cell until you bond out or until you are moved to a pod.

For those who get bonded out earlier they are released from the jail and handed a piece of paper telling them when and where they need to appear. At that first appearance in court they are called up to the bench and the judge tells them it would be best if they would keep their damn mouths shut. If they've bonded out it's assumed that they are pleading not guilty.

Unlike what you see on television or in the movies. There is no dramatic scene where a defendant is brought into a courtroom with an attorney to enter a not guilty plea and argue over the amount of bond required to get out of jail. You see, we have a bond schedule in Harris County that takes the guesswork right out of the entire process. There's no need to talk about mitigating circumstances or a defendant's clean record or ability to pay, all a magistrate has to do is look down the list and set bail.

But then we come to the 11th floor of the Harris County Criminal (In)justice Center and the courtroom for County Criminal Court at Law No. 14. That's where the rules we follow in the normal world don't apply. It can be like stepping out into another world.

This is a court in which every defendant charged with driving while intoxicated will be ordered to install an ignition interlock device on their car -- even the one who blew 0.0 who was suspected of having smoked marijuana. Let's just forget about the fact that the interlock device can't detect THC in a person's breath. But, dammit, if he was charged with DWI we're going with the interlock anyway. And heaven help the poor soul who "tripped the wire" because he had used mouthwash just before starting his car. If anything bad comes back on that report he's going to jail overnight to teach him the lesson that neither the state nor its devices are ever wrong.

Step into the courtroom and you will see Judge Fields call up all the defendants making their first appearances who bonded out and who haven't hired attorneys. And then, without letting the people in front of him know they have the right to remain silent and the right to consult with counsel, he asks them how they wish to plead. Right there. No one is provided with any information about the consequences of pleading guilty and no one is warned of the potential collateral consequences of such a plea.

And once it's entered, it's final. No turning back. No changing your mind.

A judge isn't part of the prosecution's team. A judge is supposed to a be a neutral and unbiased referee who's sole job is to make certain that a defendant's due process rights are protected and that both sides follow the rules of evidence and procedure during the course of the proceedings. Whether a person pleads guilty or not is of no concern to the judge - at least it shouldn't be. In Texas we are all guaranteed the right to a jury trial in a criminal matter. Defendants and their attorneys shouldn't have to fight the judge to exercise that right.

The entire criminal (in)justice system in Harris County is designed to coerce defendants into pleading guilty. Whether it's excessive bail or bond conditions; or whether it's judges who want to prevent folks from exercising their right to a jury trial; the game is the same.

Judge Fields isn't the only one playing this game. But he was certainly the most egregious this time around.

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