Archive for the ‘Plea Bargains’ Category

7 Criminal Defense Lawyers to Avoid

Monday, July 20th, 2009

If you are charged with a crime, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Unlike civil lawsuits, which are merely about money, criminal prosecutions are the real deal. You can lose your liberty, rights, reputation, and opportunities down the road. You can lose your life, or a substantial part of it. So you obviously want a lawyer who can do the job well.

Fortunately, the criminal defense bar is full of lawyers who are good at what they do. The vast majority do a fine job, working very hard in difficult circumstances to get the best results they can for their clients. They’re smart, dedicated, and wise.

However, there are a few out there that one might want to avoid. They fall into 7 general categories, described below. YMMV, and there may be outstanding attorneys out there who nevertheless fall into one or more of these categories. For the most part, however, these types should be retained with caution:

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1) The Dilettante

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You’ve just been arrested for armed robbery. You need a lawyer, and fast. But you don’t know any lawyers. Fortunately, there’s Mr. Paper, your dad’s corporate lawyer. Your dad asks him, and Mr. Paper says he’d be happy to represent you. This is great! He’s very respected, and smart as a whip, and he’s known you since you were a baby, so you feel very comfortable hiring him.

Mr. Paper, meanwhile, is thrilled. He hasn’t seen the inside of a real courtroom since the day he was sworn in. He’d love to get a little of that real courtroom action, just for once. He’ll take a couple of hours now to bone up on criminal procedure, and learn what he needs to as it comes up. He’s a quick study, and he’s negotiated tons of very difficult business deals in his day, so how hard could it be?

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that. He doesn’t speak the language. He doesn’t know what the judges and clerks expect him to do and say. He won’t know what the prosecutor needs to hear. If you’re lucky, the prosecutor will recognize that your lawyer doesn’t know what he’s doing, and throw him a bone or two to prevent an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel do-over.

If you’re not so lucky, however, you’re screwed. Maybe you could have gotten off on a technicality, but Mr. Paper never realized it. Maybe you could have gotten a better plea offer, but he didn’t know how to get it. Maybe you could have won at trial, but Mr. Paper didn’t know how to prepare, couldn’t cross-examine to save his soul, and wasn’t able to get the point across to the jury. He got his jollies, and you got jail.

Identifying traits: Refers to your case as a “project.” Brags to all his friends and clients that he’s “got a criminal trial coming up.” Uses phrases like “buy-in,” “going forward” and “what’s a Mapp hearing, again?”

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2) The True Believer

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This lawyer seems great, at first glance. She is ready to believe you didn’t do it! In fact, she’s convinced of your innocence! She’s going to fight the government tooth and nail!

The True Believer does not negotiate. Her clients are innocent. Innocent people do not plead guilty. There will be no plea here. This case is going to trial!

So far, so good, right? Maybe not. You may have noticed a certain lack of objectivity here. This is the hallmark of the True Believer. She is immune to reason. She is incapable of seeing your case for what it is, flaws and all. She’s crossed the line from “zealous advocate” to “zealot.”

The True Believer has an anti-authority streak so wide, it blocks her vision: All cops are liars! All evidence is planted! All confessions are coerced! The system is corrupt! It’s just a machine that shoves innocent people into prison! It’s racist! It’s classist! It’s… you get the picture.

Her clients may feel good, knowing that she is so strongly on their side. But her clients suffer for it, in the end. Maybe there really was rock-solid evidence against them, and a conviction was practically guaranteed, but a decent plea bargain could have been negotiated. It didn’t happen, though. She’d rather take a spectacular defeat than earn a quiet victory. And now the client is slammed with a sentence that’s more severe than they could have gotten.

Or maybe the case did have weaknesses. Sometimes the evidence is flawed. Sometimes the cops do lie. Sometimes there was a rush to judgment. But who is going to believe a defense attorney who has made a career of crying wolf? Certainly not the judges and prosecutors who have put up with her antics all these years. And that’s too bad, because had she retained some credibility she might have been able to convince them to drop the case, or at least reduce it.

The True Believer is hamstrung by her belief in her client’s innocence. She is incapable of giving wise counsel, dealing with obstacles, or negotiating with the government.

The True Believer’s clients suffer worse penalties because of her. And the injustice of it all only feeds her convictions, of course. It’s so unfair! Nobody listens to the truth! It’s a conspiracy of apathy! It’s systemic racism! And so it goes…

Identifying traits: Righteous indignation. Tendency to substitute slogans for thought. Willing, if not eager, suspension of disbelief.

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3) The Social Crusader

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Not to be confused with the True Believer, the Social Crusader is out to change the world. The system is broken, and he’s going to change it! That is a laudable goal, of course. And there are ways it can be achieved — perhaps through getting involved in politics, writing editorials, and the like. But instead of trying to persuade those who actually make the rules, he’s taken his political activism to the one place where it does more harm than good: the courtroom.

It doesn’t matter if the Social Crusader thinks that a drug crimes are punished too harshly; his client is still going to be punished according to those laws. It doesn’t matter if he thinks capital punishment is inherently cruel and unusual; his death penalty client still faces it. It doesn’t matter if he thinks the police shouldn’t be allowed to search places that the law lets them search; the evidence is still going to be admitted.

The Social Crusader wastes his time fighting the law from within, and his clients suffer dearly for it. Instead of challenging the evidence, and perhaps winning the case, he fights policy and loses. Because it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about what can be proved.

The Social Crusader also cannot negotiate. How could he even think of allowing his clients to plead guilty to something that shouldn’t even be a crime? So forget about getting a good plea bargain with this guy.

This guy simply doesn’t understand that political activism is not his job right now. His job is to get the best outcome he can for his client. One does this, not by arguing what the law ought to be, but by dealing with the law as it is. Instead, he’s living in a fantasy world, ignoring cruel reality. His client, living in real life, suffers for his lawyer’s failure to deal with it.

Identifying traits: Says things like “draconian drug laws,” “someone ought to do something about…,” “the law is an ass.” Tends not to wear suits, preferring activist chic that sends a message, an anti-suit that is just barely permissible in court. Weird hair. Doesn’t talk about you or the facts of your case much, if at all.

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4) The Whiner

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At first glance, this lawyer seems like she’s totally going to bat for you. She’s constantly advocating for her clients, trying to get prosecutors to make better offers. When she’s not on the phone, she’s in court making an argument. What’s not to love?

The problem is that she’s not actually making arguments. As Michael Palin put it, “an argument is an intellectual process,” and that’s not what’s happening here. Instead of saying things like “here’s why my client deserves a better offer,” the whiner resorts to “why can’t you just give him a misdemeanor?” or “aww, c’mon, can’t you give him probation?” Repeatedly. Over and over again. In every phone call. A typical conversation might go like this:

Whiner: Oh, come on, why can’t you just give him a misdemeanor?

Prosecutor: Because he sold heroin to an undercover and three others in a school zone, he doesn’t have a drug problem, and this is the third time he’s been caught doing it. He’s already had his second and third chances, and I’m not going to offer anything less than a year this time around. Now of course, I only know what the cops told me, and if there is something else I need to know that would change my mind, I’d love to hear it.

Whiner: But I don’t understand why you can’t just offer the misdemeanor!

Repeat for ten minutes.

The strategy may be simply to wear down the other side until they give in. But we’ve never seen it work. All one gets is a pissed off adversary who is entirely justified in never returning one’s calls again.

The Whiner tries the same tactics on judges, with even less success.

One would think that, after having this strategy fail time and time again, the Whiner might consider trying something new. But she doesn’t. She just whines harder.

True story: We were in court watching a pathetic performance by a Legal Aid lawyer widely known to be one of the worst Whiners. As usual, it didn’t work. Later, out in the hallway, we saw her supervisor chastising her. Really laying into her. What was the supervisor saying? “You weren’t whining enough! You need to be whining more! Why weren’t you nagging them?” And more of the same. We kid you not.

So apparently some defense attorneys are actually trained to do this. But it’s lazy, substituting persistence for advocacy. Instead of thinking or doing some actual lawyering, the Whiner just tries to wear down the opposition with entreaty and supplication. It’s not a strategy we would advise.

Identifying traits: Permanent pout or moue. Nasally voice. Puppy-dog eyes.

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5) The Fraidy Cat

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It’s true, some lawyers really are afraid of going to trial. Maybe they have stage fright. Maybe they don’t know what to do in front of a jury, and know it. Maybe they’ve had one too many bad experiences. Whatever the reason, they’ll do anything to get out of going to trial.

That’s not a good trait for a defense attorney to have. Sure, 99% or more of criminal cases never go to trial. But nobody knows which ones are going to be the lucky few that do. As time goes on, and a case starts looking more and more like it might actually go to trial, the Fraidy Cat starts getting the urge to just take an offer — any offer.

There are two problems with that. First, some cases really do need to go to trial. Sometimes the cops got the wrong guy. Sometimes the evidence just isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people get acquitted. But nobody gets acquitted until after they’ve had a trial. And Fraidy Cats don’t go to trial, so their clients aren’t likely to get acquittals. Their clients are more likely to get counseled on the wisdom of taking a plea instead. (Now many of those clients probably should take a plea, but what about the handful who maybe shouldn’t have?)

The second problem is that criminal practice is a small world, and reputations get around. A lawyer who has a reputation for backsliding on the eve of trial is just not going to get great offers. Even in a difficult case with tricky evidence, where ordinarily a prosecutor might be willing to lower his offer to avoid the uncertainty of trial — there’s no need to do that, when everyone knows this case is never getting in front of a jury.

The Fraidy Cat is often a Whiner as well.

Identifying traits: It can be hard to differentiate a Fraidy Cat from a normal lawyer. One of the best ways is to insist at your first meeting that you won’t plea bargain, but will insist on a jury trial. And watch his eyes. If he tenses up like a cornered baby rabbit, you might consider probing further.

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6) The Caseload Crammer

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On the whole, it’s good to be busy. More cases mean more fees, and more job satisfaction. But too many cases can be worse than too few. The Caseload Crammer has way too many cases.

Often, the Crammer is getting most or all of his fees from low-paying court-appointed work. This kind of work is fine if one is starting a new practice, or wants to supplement one’s normal caseload with some indigent work. But these cases pay very little. A lawyer who relies exclusively on them is going to need to have more than he can probably handle, just so he can eat.

A client whose lawyer has hundreds of other clients probably isn’t getting that much attention. That may not be a problem if your case is strictly routine. It may actually be a bonus, if your lawyer does thousands of cases just like yours every year. If your facts aren’t that unique, if the issues are identical to everyone else’s, and he knows what he’s doing, then it might be okay.

But what if your case isn’t the same as everyone else’s? If your case has unusual facts, unique issues or tricky questions of law… sorry, but this lawyer just doesn’t have time to deal with it effectively — if he was even able to break from routine enough to spot the issue in the first place. He just can’t afford to do the work your case requires. If he takes time away from his other cases to put in the hours your case needs, then he risks committing malpractice in those other cases. He’s more likely just to put in the minimum effort on your case.

Don’t take our word for it. This is exactly the argument that court-appointed lawyers make when they ask for higher fees: Such a lawyer needs to take on so many cases at the existing rates that he flirts with malpractice just to make a living.

Identifying traits: Malnourished. Sleepless, red eyes. Tends to recite courtroom litanies in his sleep.

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7) The Showoff

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Here’s another one that seems fine at first glance. He seems great! After all, he told you so himself. The Showoff likes to brag and boast and bluster about how amazing he is. He may wear too-expensive suits, and unnecessarily showy jewelry. He knows everyone, as he’s sure to let you know. And he may be pretty well-known himself. In fact, one of the most dangerous places in town is any spot between him and a TV camera.

But behind the boasts, there is no substance. The Showoff is just an empty suit.

But how can you tell if someone’s just a Showoff? After all, there’s nothing wrong with bragging. We all do it, and clients like to know that they’re hiring someone with experience. And it’s good and proper to dress as well as one can. And there are plenty of well-known attorneys who have earned every bit of their fame.

The problem with the Showoff is, he just doesn’t have what it takes any more — if he ever did. He can’t live up to his own hype. He may have had the chops once, back when he was busy earning that reputation. Or maybe he just had some lucky breaks. But now he just can’t do the heavy lifting any more. You’ve been lured into thinking you’ve retained a superstar, and what you really have is nobody special.

Maybe it’s all the bragging and schmoozing and more schmoozing, so he doesn’t have the time to master the facts and issues of your case. Maybe it’s just that he’s coasting, and doesn’t realize he ought to be working harder. Whatever the reason, you’re not getting superstar representation. He doesn’t know the law like he should. He hasn’t learned the facts. He hasn’t grasped the complexities. He’s not prepared, and it shows. And that’s just deadly.

Identifying traits: Talks more about himself than about your case. Tendency to sell past the close. Slick as a phony politician.

Are White Collar Sentences Too Harsh Now?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

dilbert-wcc.pngPrison Farm

When we started law school back in ’93, we felt that white-collar criminals just weren’t punished that harshly in this country. The Dilbert strip above, from about the same time, shows that we were not alone in thinking this. It seems that this was a common perception going at least as far back as our early childhood — click on the audio button above to listen to an early ’70s National Lampoon skit called “Prison Farm.”

Like many, we felt that there was some serious injustice going on here. Socioeconomic elites were getting off lightly, even though they may have victimized far more people, far more seriously, than street-level crooks who were doing hard time. A mugger takes one person’s money, and gets a long sentence in a high-security prison. Meanwhile, a Wall Street scammer wipes out thousands of families’ savings, erases their years of labor and planning, and gets a slap on the wrist. It seemed absurd, like something from Alice in Wonderland.

And we weren’t wrong. As late as the early ’90s, we had guys like Mike Milken serving less than two years, even after the sentencing judge (Kimba Wood) had said such things as “You were willing to commit only crimes that were unlikely to be detected…. When a man of your power in the financial world… repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax business in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself… a significant prison term is required.”

The lesser sentences were of course due in no small part to the difficulty of spotting white-collar crime in the first place, and then proving it to a jury. Also, the law itself classified these crimes at the less-serious end of the spectrum. So you had to expect significant plea bargaining in difficult-to-prove cases, and the plea sentences were being discounted from relatively short terms in the first place.

Another important factor was the socioeconomic status of the white-collar defendants. These were not street thugs, they weren’t skeevy bottom-feeders. They were college-educated, productive members of the community, involved in charities and otherwise living “normal” lives. Their crimes weren’t violent, they were almost administrative. Victims weren’t in your face, with visceral injuries and tangible losses; they were anonymous and diffuse, with paper losses of mere money. These middle- and upper-class defendants weren’t people who belonged in prison — their loss of status, their shame, did more to rehabilitate and deter than any time behind bars. Judges felt this, and acted accordingly.

But by the time we graduated law school, this had all started to change. By then, the federal Sentencing Guidelines had gone into effect. The Guidelines had three major effects on federal cases. First, they increased the penalties for white-collar crimes, especially where the dollar amounts were high and there were many victims. Second, judges lost most of their discretion to sentence lightly based on the defendant’s socioeconomic status, and were not all that willing to put such reasoning on the record. Third, the Guidelines took away much of the plea-bargaining leeway, only permitting two or three levels of departure for taking a plea.

The biggest change happened when the tech bubble burst in 2000. In the late ’90s, Americans became investors like never before, with even cops and construction workers becoming day traders at home. Tons of our money went into IRAs, brokerage accounts and 401(k)s. And then the bubble burst, the markets dipped, and the average Joe saw his investments tank. As always happens, this revealed financial frauds that had escaped unnoticed in the up market. The middle class was outraged, and began to demand severe penalties for the fraudsters.

Prosecutors and judges got the message, and the exposed fraudsters got slammed. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers got 25 years. Enron’s Jeff Skilling got 24 years and 4 months (Andy Fastow, reported to be the primary Enron fraudster, cooperated and got six years). Adelphia’s John Rigas got 15 years. In state court, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski got 8-1/3 to 25 years.

This pattern repeated itself in the recent economic downturn. After several boom years, a credit crunch and market dip exposed many white-collar offenses (most of which we are told are still in the pre-indictment phase). Voters had lost a lot, and their voices were heard.

So now we get yesterday’s 150-year sentence of Bernie Madoff. As we’ve explained before, we’ve avoided writing about the Madoff case, because everyone else is already talking about it, and we don’t feel like we have anything new to add.

But this 150-year sentence… we’re going to go against the grain here and wonder out loud if perhaps it’s too harsh.

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Whoa. How can we say that, when we just got done saying how unjust it seemed when white-collar types were getting off lightly? Isn’t this exactly what we wanted?

No, it isn’t. We wanted the punishment to fit the crime, and to fit the policies underlying criminal punishment. This sentence doesn’t do that.

For one thing, Madoff took a plea to avoid trial. And yet he still got the worst sentence that he could have gotten had a jury convicted him. What was the point of taking a plea? This sends a strong message to white-collar defendants now: you might as well just go to trial, because you’re going to get the same sentence if you lose — and juries being what they are, you might just win. The system could see a lot fewer pleas — pleas it relies on to keep working.

For another thing, Madoff got a bunch of consecutive sentences. Normally, even after trial, they’d mostly run concurrently. He’d have gotten about 30 years — still a life sentence for a 71-year-old guy. Judge Chin said he did so for “symbolic” reasons, to make the victims feel better. But is that a valid purpose of sentencing?

Of course it isn’t. The purpose of sentencing is not to make victims feel better, or give them closure, or anything like that. The criminal justice system does not serve the function of making victims whole. That’s the job of the civil courts. A criminal court can order restitution as a condition of sentencing, but that’s about it. The purpose of sentencing is not reparation, but punishment. Punishment is supposed to deter future crimes, retaliate against the offender, rehabilitate the offender so he doesn’t do it again, or remove a threat to society.

But maybe Judge Chin is on to something here. Perception is important. Few of the purposes of punishment work unless there is some perception. Deterrence doesn’t work, unless people get the impression that crimes are probably going to be punished, and that they will probably be punished harshly enough to make them not worth your while. (This raises an interesting thought experiment — would the criminal justice system work just as well if we could give the public the impression that crimes are punished, without actually incurring the expense and hassle of, you know, punishing them? Discuss.)

Another problem we have with this sentence is that his scam wasn’t directed at Joe Retail out there. It was a secretive investment fund that did not disclose what it was doing, as it would have had to if it had been sold to the average person. It could be secretive because it was sold to sophisticated investors. These sophisticated investors saw an unusually high and steady rate of return, and instead of investigating to see what was going on, simply told Madoff to cut them in.

Sophisticated investors have a duty to check these things out. Are we blaming the victims here? Yeah, a little. They had the size or experience to know that something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. And yet they shoved their money into the fund anyway. And for those who shoved all of their money into the fund, ignoring basic investment principles of diversification, they were victimizing themselves just as much as if they’d invested in Pets.com. And for those who invested beyond their discretionary income, but actually sent Madoff the money they needed to live on, that’s the epitome of dumb. These weren’t blue-collar workers, these were investors with enough dough to get in the game, and enough savvy to have known better. The law just doesn’t need to afford them the same protections as ordinary folks.

So the law doesn’t need to impose punishments harsher than those imposed on victimizers of ordinary folks.

What is needed is parity. Yes, white-collar sentences should reflect the seriousness of the harm done, just as sentences for violent crimes and street crimes need to be proportionate to the offense. A white-collar offense that causes as much harm as a back-alley mugging probably deserves a similar punishment, all else being equal. Maybe a little less, actually, as there is more likelihood of deterrence or rehabilitation. White-collar crimes are usually calculated, they aren’t crimes of the moment, and offenders usually have the smarts to take punishment into account. And white-collar offenders aren’t as likely to re-offend once they’ve gone through the system. So sure, maybe they don’t need quite as much punishment. But it ought to be about the same.

Giving 150 years here, though, is not at all proportionate. Murderers don’t get that much. Kidnappers don’t get that much. And taking someone’s life or liberty is just not the same as taking someone’s property. White-collar victims only lose money. It’s only money. It’s a big deal, but it should not be punished more severely than crimes that are obviously more severe.

The pendulum has swung too far.

The Prosecutor’s B.S. Meter

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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I love reading Scott Greenfield’s blog Simple Justice. He posted a good one the other day called “Another Prosecutor Loses Her Virginity,” about a former prosecutor, Rochelle Berliner, now a defense attorney, who just came to the realization that cops sometimes lie.

Her epiphany was published in Saturday’s New York Times, in an article headlined “Drug Suspect Turns Tables on NYPD With Videotape.” A pair of defendants had actual video evidence that the cops had totally fabricated the entire basis for their arrest, and they gave the video to Rochelle.

”I almost threw up,” she said. ”Because I must’ve prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases … and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.”

Scott has a typical defender’s take on this.

What is disturbing about Berliner’s exclamation is not that she spent 14 years prosecuting people without having realized that maybe, just maybe, her cops weren’t perfect. That’s to be expected of career prosecutors, who often spend their entire careers with their heads deeply embedded in the cops’ derrière. It tends to give one a poor view of reality. It’s that she spent four years since leaving Special Narcotics as a defense lawyer and yet, not until now, was aware of the fact that cops, sometimes, fabricate crimes out of whole cloth. That’s four years of defendants represented by someone who was certain that they wouldn’t have been arrested if they weren’t guilty.

. . .

Rochelle Berliner now knows better. Welcome to the ranks of criminal defense lawyer, where we don’t have all the answers but we do know that the prosecution doesn’t either. You’re lucky that you’ve joined in the age of pervasive video, or you still wouldn’t believe this possible. Imagine how many times before the age of video Dominican immigrants like the Colon brothers were convicted for crimes that never happened, with someone like you feeling awfully good about it. I can understand why this would make you sick.

So congratulations on losing your virginity. I hope it didn’t hurt too much. I’m sure it didn’t feel very good for Jose and Maximo Colon, and I hope Police Officer Henry Tavarez loses his soon.

We didn’t want to comment on this, at first, because it so happens that we worked with Rochelle for a few years in Special Narcotics, and we knew and liked her. And frankly, she is well-equipped to defend her own self if she so desires.

But Scott’s piece, and a couple of the comments posted to it, kept nagging at us. There are some things we think really ought to be said here. So here’s our two cents’ worth:

First of all, a quick and unnecessary defense of Rochelle. We’ve known a whole array of prosecutors in our time, and Rochelle was one of the good ones. There certainly are prosecutors out there who are so misguided as to believe that their job — we kid you not — is to fight to convict anyone the cops bring in. We once walked out of an interview (with Dade County) where that exact philosophy was espoused. And there are plenty others who just put in their time to do a workmanlike job, without pushing themselves too hard one way or the other. But there are a significant number who truly believe their job is to achieve a just outcome, taking everything into consideration. Rochelle always struck us as being one of the latter.

And yet her bullshit meter seems not to have been working properly for nearly 18 years. What gives?

Speaking for ourselves, we like to think our own B.S. meter was working just fine — at least a lot of the time. We pissed off a lot of cops in our day. And there are some ex-cops who probably still rue the day that they lied to us. But there’s no way our B.S. meter was on all the time. It’s impossible.

We worked with a lot of the same detectives, over and over. You get to know the teams pretty well. They’re almost friends, some of them. You learn which ones are straight arrows, which ones are clowns, which ones are unscrupulous or lazy, and which ones are just along for the ride. You learn that most of them are happily gaming the system to make as much overtime as possible. You also learn that most of them couldn’t care less whether someone gets convicted after the arrest is written up. And hopefully you’re able to listen to each individual with the appropriate level of disbelief.

But when you’ve worked with someone for a while, and gotten to know them, it’s natural to let your guard down. How skeptical are you likely to be of someone who’s been pretty straight with you for as long as you’ve known them? And even if you do retain some skepticism, so what? There has to be a reason to suspect that the facts are not what you’re being told, and most of the time there’s no reason to do so.

Part of this is the randomness of real life. Maybe there’s a little detail that’s not right — or perhaps too right. But that’s life. The truth is rarely ideal. So it’s not easy to tell when any particular glitch in the matrix is a clue to something more sinister.

Part of this is the sheer routineness of drug cases. There are only so many ways these crimes happen, and the facts don’t vary too much from case to case. When the story you just heard happens to fit the pattern of the past thousand cases you’ve handled, it would be strange to be skeptical.

So even with a fully-functioning B.S. meter, there’s no way you’re going to catch everything. You just do the best you can.

The irony is that, the longer one serves, even as one’s knowledge of street reality grows from rookie ignorance to near-expert mastery, one’s ability to sense bullshit decreases dramatically, for all the reasons just mentioned. You’ve known the cops forever, you’ve handled this same kind of case countless times before, and the story just rings true.

This is where we defense attorneys have an obligation.

I’ll give my defender readers a moment to recover. Yes, I actually suggested that we are obliged to do something here.

You okay? Good. Yes, we defense attorneys have an absolute duty to ensure that prosecutors are given all the tools necessary to flush out the bullshit. This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s an imperative of our role.

For street crimes, the only facts an ADA or AUSA has in any given case are those provided by the cops or agents involved. If those facts fit together, there is no reason to believe the truth is otherwise.

It is so rare as to be remarkable for a defense attorney to come to a prosecutor with new facts, or a new way of looking at the facts. But most of the time, whenever it happened to us or we’ve done it ourselves, it was most assuredly worth it.

In any given case, the prosecutor has already made up his or her mind about guilt, innocence, and the appropriate plea, based on the facts provided by the cops. No amount of whining or cajoling or begging is going to change their mind. And yet that is precisely the idiotic strategy used by so many defenders out there. The only way to change someone’s conclusions is to present new facts that change the conclusion.

This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s a defender’s duty. Our job is to protect our clients, period. If the prosecutor is holding all the cards, and is going to make the biggest decision of our client’s life, we need to do what we can to make sure the right decision is made. We have an obligation to extract from our (yes, probably unwilling) client and other witnesses the facts that will make a difference.

And you know what? When a defense attorney came to us with new facts, or a new way of looking at them, we listened. We didn’t listen to the whiners, but we did listen to those who truly advocated, who had something we needed to hear. And more often than not, at least in our experience, such advocacy resulted in a dramatically improved outcome for the defendant. We were known to even dismiss indictments, if the new facts warranted.

* * * * *

We can’t end this without revealing a dirty secret, however. Prosecutors are only human, after all, and even the best are subject to incentives that reduce the likelihood that their bullshit meter is on full power.

Some people just want to be liked, and so they go along with whatever the cops tell them. These people are patsies and pushovers, and tend not to last long as prosecutors.

Some people befriend the cops, and so become not the advocates of the People, but of the officers. They go to bat for their cops — and yes, “their” cops is how they’d phrase it — even against the cops’ own supervisors. Friendship and loyalty are powerful human traits, and it’s the exceptional person who can act in spite of, rather than in keeping with, such emotional forces.

And some people are ambitious. A prosecutor without ambition is something of an oddity, and one is never quite sure about them. Ambitious prosecutors want good cases. They want big cases. They want that one case that makes them feel like they’re actually making a difference, and not just holding back the tide with a teaspoon.

Well, the big cases don’t just land in your lap. They are brought to you. And they are brought to you by the cops. And the cops won’t bring them to you unless they like you, feel like they can work with you, and trust you do prosecute the case the way they’d want it to be prosecuted.

Are the cops going to bring their big cases and investigations to the ADA who’s always giving them a hard time? The ADA who busts their balls over every little glitch? The ADA who doesn’t go to bat for that RDO overtime once in a while? Hardly.

So this is a real, albeit unspoken incentive. (Actually, it’s not unspoken. We were told this plainly and clearly by multiple prosecutors and cops during our time with Special Narcotics. Sometimes as a warning of what to watch out for, but also sometimes as instructions on how to act if we wanted to start getting those juicy investigations.)

So an ambitious prosecutor has an incentive to act in such a way as to increase the chances of bagging the big cases. Does that mean such prosecutors are necessarily turning off their B.S. meters? That they’re consciously avoiding knowledge of the truth, or knowingly deciding not to challenge the story they’re getting. No, not at all.

It’s not a conscious process. It’s a perfectly human, unconscious thing. The decision is probably not passing through the frontal lobes. It just happens that way.

* * * * *

So there are all kinds of reasons — some justifiable, some not — for prosecutors to believe tales told by cops that may not be exactly truthful.

Knowing this to be the case, what should we defense attorneys do about it? Should we throw up our hands and bemoan the injustice of it all? That wouldn’t accomplish anything. Should we fight to change the system, so that it minimizes the inevitable injustices occasioned by its administration by human beings? Of course, and that’s been the role of our jurisprudence since Magna Carta, but it’s hardly useful on a case-by-case basis.

What we need to do is acknowledge that this is a phenomenon that occurs. That there are reasons why it occurs. And then take the necessary action on our own part to minimize the injustice. If we have facts that the prosecutor ought to know, then share them! Better to persuade one lawyer now than to hold on to the facts and seek to persuade twelve random jurors a year from now. If we have a perspective about what the facts mean, then persuade the prosecutor. Don’t whine or plead, just make a rational argument from shared principles. It works often enough.

And if push comes to shove, and you have a fight on your hands, then goddammit fight. But don’t just complain that the system is unfair.

Good defense attorneys like Scott Greenfield get this. Good prosecutors get it, too.

Supreme Court: If Prosecution Breaches Plea Deal, OBJECT!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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Voting 7-2, the Supreme Court today ruled that a defendant cannot appeal when the prosecution reneged on a plea bargain, unless the issue was preserved before the trial court.

In his majority opinion for Puckett v. U.S., Justice Scalia cleared up a split among the circuits. There had been differing opinions on whether this situation was one of the exceptions to the general rule requiring that issues be preserved below. He sort of signaled his take on the issue with his first sentence: “The question presented by this case is whether a forfeited claim that the Government has violated the terms of a plea agreement is subject to the plain-error standard of review set forth in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The facts of the case are going to sound familiar to anyone who’s been doing criminal law for very long. The defendant was indicted for armed robbery, and negotiated a plea deal. As part of the deal, the prosecutors promised to tell the court that he “has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualifies for a three-level reduction…” But then, after the plea but before sentencing, the defendant got in trouble again, this time for a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. The prosecutors changed their mind, in light of this new information, and told the sentencing court that the defendant should *not* get credit for accepting responsibility.

The defense attorney called foul, and reminded the court of the terms of the plea agreement. The judge turned to the prosecutor, who dismissed it as having been written a long time ago, and the new crime changed the situation. The judge decided that he couldn’t grant a reduction, and wouldn’t even if he could, given the new crime. He did impose a sentence at the low end of the range, however.

“Importantly,” to Scalia, “at no time during the exchange did Puckett’s counsel object that the Government was violating its obligations under the plea agreement by backing away from its request for the reduction. He never cited the relevant provision of the plea agreement. And he did not move to withdraw Puckett’s plea on grounds that the Government had broken its sentencing promises.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that error had occurred, and it was obvious, but it did not cause prejudice, so it was not “plain error.” Basically, the defendant couldn’t demonstrate that his ultimate sentence would have been any different, whether the prosecution had recommended the reduction or not, given the judge’s disinclination to grant it in the first place.

But there was a conflict among the circuits as to whether the plain-error test applies to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements. So the Supreme Court granted cert.

In finding that Rule 52(b) does apply to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements, Scalia started with the principle that plain-error review is rightly the norm for unpreserved errors, because “anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal.” Exceptions to the normal rule do exist, of course. But should this situation be one of them?

Everyone took it as given that the government had broken its agreement. The issue is whether, in the absence of an objection below, anything could be done about it on appeal here.

The defendant first argued conceptually that the government’s breach of the plea agreement made that agreement void, and so voided the guilty plea. Scalia pointed out that breaching a contract does not make the whole contract void and invalid from the first; the contract remains enforceable.

The defendant next argued that there was precedent in *Santobello*, where a broken plea promise was grounds for reversal in the interests of justice, even though the breach did not affect the judge’s decision and thus the error was harmless. Scalia countered that whether or not an error is harmless is not the issue here, which is whether the error can be subjected to plain-error review. In *Santobello*, moreover, the issue clearly had been preserved below.

The defendant then argued that applying Rule 52(b) makes no sense, because objecting to a plea breach is futile; the prosecution’s wrongful action cannot be undone. The judge will have heard the improper recommendation, and can’t unhear it. Scalia stated that requiring an objection prevents defendants from “seeking a second bite at the apple” after waiting to see if they like the outcome or not. Also, some breaches are curable. And those that aren’t can be remedied by the trial court, such as by withdrawal of the plea, or by resentencing before a different judge.

The biggest point the defendant raised was that plea breaches fall within “a special category of forfeited errors that can be corrected regardless of their effect on the outcome,” so that even if there was no prejudicial effect, there still ought to be a reversal.

Scalia responded by categorizing the exceptions that do exist: errors that “necessarily render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence,” or that “defy analysis by harmless-error standards by affecting the entire adjudicatory framework,” or which involve “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.”

None of those considerations applied here, so Scalia decided that this situation just didn’t fit as an exception to the general rule.

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Stevens, dissented. Although the defendant wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and although they agreed that the plain-error test is the right one to apply here, the dissenters felt that the Court was looking at the wrong effects.

The majority (and apparently the parties, too) looked at the effect of the error as merely being the length of the sentence, which probably wasn’t affected here. Souter, in contrast, saw the effect as being “conviction in the absence of trial,” or in the absence of “compliance with the terms of the plea agreement dispensing with the Government’s obligation to prove its case.”

The criminal conviction itself, not the length of sentence, is the effect on substantial rights according to Souter. Due Process and fundamental fairness require, “before the stigma of conviction can be imposed,” either a trial or a plea agreement honored by the Government. “It is hard to imagine anything less fair,” he stated, “than branding someone a criminal… because he entered a plea of guilty induced by an agreement the Government refuses to honor.” Sentencing after the prosecution breached a plea agreement would always, by definition, be plain error.

Justice Souter’s approach is, of course, attractive to those who value the fairness and integrity of jurisprudence. However, it is hard even for this defense attorney to agree that all such sentences are necessarily plain error, especially when an adequate remedy (getting to take one’s plea back) is available if the defense attorney is paying attention.