Learning the Difference
When I'm explaining the plea bargain process to my clients, I compare it to someone selling a car. The prosecutor's position is like that of the car owner, and the strengths and weaknesses of the case are akin to the value of the vehicle. Maybe the car is flawless and in perfect running condition. Maybe it is a complete lemon. The same can be said for a case -- although I've seen many more lemons than flawless cases in my time.
But in both scenarios, it is the car owner/prosecutor who is completely in charge of setting the negotiating price. If the car/case is flawless and powerful, the buyer/defendant can expect high prices with less flexibility. If, however, the car or the case is not particularly powerful and has engine problems, one might expect that price to be drastically reduced, or for the car to be totally tossed on the scrap pile.
Whether the case is flawless or an utter disaster, one thing remains the same: the prosecutor has the sole discretion to set the asking price, and the defense attorney and his or her client is powerless to force them to lower or change it. We can either accept the deal or walk away from the bargaining table and set it for trial.
It's just that simple. It always has been and it always will be.
Much like the auto industry, there are good times and there are bad times. Hurricanes that destroy fragile and poorly built courthouses may inspire a fire sale on cases to help move inventory, for instance. Non-violent offenders charged with low-level crimes may find themselves receiving plea bargain offers that are significantly more generous than they might receive under normal conditions. In some cases, a prosecutor may decide that a contested issue on a motion is probably going to go the defendant's way and just agree to it, rather than go to a full hearing.
It's just the practical thing to do and prosecutors generally understand that, as do defense attorneys, their clients, and judges. Otherwise, a total backlog would be expected, wouldn't it?
As this year has proven, unfortunately, a measly hurricane is nothing compared to a global pandemic when it comes to wreaking havoc on the criminal justice system. In the twenty-one years since I've been practicing criminal law in Harris County, I've seen Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricanes Ike and Harvey deliver devastating blows to the system, including closing the CJC down for months and months. Each time, the System found some way to adapt and get back up and running in some form or fashion within a month or two.
The effect of the pandemic on the criminal justice system across the country has made hurricanes and other natural disasters seem like a light sprinkle. With only a handful of exceptions, all jury trials have ceased since March.
Take a moment to fully appreciate that.
In Harris County, Texas, jury trials have come to an (almost) complete stop for nine months and counting in 22 Felony District Courts and 16 County Courts at Law. Hundreds of cases set for trial have been pushed back to a date that has yet to realistically be determined. In the meantime, all the cases that would have been set for trial since March have been pushed back with faraway trial settings, all lined up behind those cases that were supposed to have been tried this year. And while those cases were getting set for trial, new cases have come in every single hour of every single day since then.
The full extent of the backlog is almost impossible to comprehend because no one really has any idea of when things are going to return to any semblance of normal. Sure, you may have a trial court here and there availing itself of the ill-conceived NRG Arena Jury Plan, but those trials have been few and far between, making no dent in the pile-up of cases that Harris County is now experiencing.
The System is collapsing under its own weight.
At the risk of sounding like I'm blowing smoke up the Judiciary's robes, the judges of Harris County, for the most part, have done all they can to keep things moving. Although they are routinely blasted for the low (or PR) bonds that they've handed out during this crisis, the judges I've been in front of have worked hard to balance public safety with the Constitutional rights provided to Defendants. They have made judgment calls on those to release on bond and those who need to stay where they are. Some of those calls have been wrong and have drawn the criticism of many. That's unavoidable, and in most instances, the criticisms are unfair. Too many cases are coming in and not enough are being disposed of. There simply isn't enough room to keep all the people locked up that the critics would like to see locked up.
But one of the byproducts of so many defendants being out on bond is that they have almost no incentive to enter into a plea bargain -- especially if that plea bargain offer involves further incarceration.
It's a hell of a conundrum if you're a prosecutor. A prosecutor may be evaluating a case where a defendant has a lengthy criminal history that includes a trip or two (or more) to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division. They may have a difficult time bringing themselves to make a plea bargain that doesn't involve another trip to TDCJ.
Under normal circumstances, that would be fairly easy to resolve. Hypothetically, let's say that a defendant is facing a punishment range of 25 years to Life on a case because of his or her prior criminal history. They are sitting in the Harris County Jail, not bonding out and the prosecutor offers them five or ten years.
Assuming the case-in-chief is strong against the Defendant, that would actually be a bargain.
However, if you are out on bond, enjoying your freedom, the idea of checking back into TDCJ for a 5 or 10 spot probably doesn't sound like much fun, does it? As a matter of fact, if you are a defendant who is out on bond, there really isn't much incentive to take that offer at all, is there? Especially if the alternative is setting the case for trial on a date that is to be determined so far down the road that your trial prosecutor might currently still be in law school.
In short, if a defendant is out on bond for his or her case, it's his or her market when it comes to deciding whether or not a plea offer from a prosecutor is worth taking.
Under those circumstances, one might think that the prosecutors would come to the realization that it is time to entirely rethink the plea bargaining process. Given the breadth and scope of COVID and the current backlog of jury trials, that should be motivating prosecutors to offer deals that make Hurricane Plea Bargains seem Draconian.
Let's pause real quickly here before my friend Joe Gamaldi's head explodes at what I'm saying.
As I've mentioned several times on this blog, I consider the most profound moment of my legal career to have come during a PSI hearing in front of Judge Caprice Cosper. It was a tragic case I was trying against my friend Sam Cammack where a couple had left their children unattended for an hour because their work shifts overlapped. A fire broke out and an infant died. The pictures were horrifying. I wanted pen time. Sam, very eloquently, argued for probation.
As Judge Cosper gave probation, she sternly told me, "Mr. Newman, in this business there are those whom we are scared of and those that we are mad at. It would behoove you to learn the difference."
I bring that story up now, because it couldn't be a more relevant guide than in this moment.
Under pandemic conditions, prosecutors have got to realize that it is time to focus resources on those offenders that we are actually scared of, and set aside our moral indignation towards scofflaws for the time being.
Sadly, that hasn't been the case in Harris County.
As newly re-elected District Attorney, Kim Ogg is still experiencing her identity crisis between the world's most progressive prosecutor or the tough-on-crime prosecutor. The result has been prosecutors fearful of offering a controversial plea bargain that might make Kim Ogg look bad and subsequently incur her wrath. Keep in mind, all personnel must have their contracts renewed going into Ogg's second term and nobody wants to lose their jobs. Many prosecutors are making their recommendations as if Wayne Dolcefino was sitting in the audience.
Historically, I've tried to refrain from using this blog to put prosecutors on blast for something that I disagreed with on a case, but damn it gets tempting with some of the absolutely ridiculous offers that have come out of the D.A.'s Office lately. I've literally set cases for trial based on whether or not a person should be on one probation or two (at the same time). I've gotten in yelling matches over .1 gram of Ecstacy. I've had to go to full-blown hearings on issues that should have been agreed upon as clearly settled matters of law. I've dealt with cases that should have been dismissed on their first setting, only to be told that I can submit a letter to get it No Billed by the Grand Jury.
I'm not alone in this thought process. My friend and fellow defense attorney Brian Roberts detailed his frustrations with HCDA prosecutors in this excellent blog post in September. Our brethren and sistren in the Defense Bar all feel the same way. And, spoiler alert, so do a lot of the judiciary.
Too many prosecutors are holding onto cases like a group of compulsive hoarders.
Obviously, this doesn't apply to all of the prosecutors. There are several that are still reasonable and knowledgable and don't consider themselves to be the Ultimate Arbiters of Justice. They will recognize the cases that need to be dismissed and the cases that should be reduced or offered small punishments. They are willing to face any internal consequences that they might have to suffer because they aren't afraid to do the right thing.
They are appreciated far more than they will ever know.
I have no doubt that I will get pushback on this post from those who will characterize me as just a liberal-ass defense attorney trying to let all those scumbag clients out. But it's time to be practical about what is happening. If the court system is clogged with non-violent offenses, it's going to be blocking the path of all the cases behind them. The non-violent cases can't just be put on the backburner in perpetuity.
Victim crimes will stack up behind them. Victims and their families will have to wait for their days in court far longer than they ever have in the past. And to what end? So that somebody with a couple of Ecstacy pills learns the hard way that we should Just Say No to drugs?
Across every walk of life, our planet has had to drastically adapt to conditions under COVID. It defies all expectations to think that the Criminal Justice System wouldn't be called to do the same.
It can be done without losing sight of the Principles of Justice.
It can be done by distinguishing between those we are mad at and those we are scared of.
I learned that lesson from a very wise Judge, and it has made all the difference.