When Should You Plead Guilty?

I had an individual ask me today about a real dilemma he had, that he, unfortunately, solved through his own ignorance and laziness. He was stopped by an officer for a broken taillight, late at night. As is the norm for most nighttime stops, the man was given the roadside sobriety tests. He failed. He was then taken into jail, and blew in the breathalyzer. He decided to stay the night in jail and in the morning was brought to court. Before talking to the judge, the prosecutor showed the man the results of his breathalyzer. He blew a .09, and he plead guilty to Driving Under the Influence.

Now, I understand, you’re scared, you’re tired from spending the night on a cot, and that judge looks awful intimidating to be someone’s grandmother. But do yourself a favor: when they ask how do you plead, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS  answer , “not guilty.”

You can change your “not guilty” plea at any time. You’re even expected to plead not guilty at that first hearing.

You basically can’t change your “guilty” plea. You have to show, in short, mental incompetence. Either you’re still drunk or high, you don’t speak English, you have an IQ so low that you can’t understand what you’re doing, or something similar. And when you can change your guilty plea, it has to be done in a very short time. Usually ten days.

This individual had no mental handicap. He spoke English. And he waited twelve days before calling me. He is stuck with his guilty plea, even though he had a good chance of getting off. Now, the only options open to him are trying to get a lighter sentence, and trying to expunge his record (because now he has one).

So when should you plead guilty? Certainly not at your first hearing, and maybe never. At the very least, talk to a lawyer before you plead. Talk to multiple lawyers if that helps you. Talk to your friends, and examine all of the evidence the government has against you. Don’t give up your right to due process.

A Little Post Conviction Discussion

I’m a little late posting this week, mainly because a whole lot came up regarding the very issue I am discussing here. Post conviction work is probably my favorite place to work in the law and, unfortunately, a lot of it goes to attorneys who are court appointed and are thoroughly bored by their jobs. But post conviction appeals can be some of the most rewarding and most galvanizing work that is out there, and the gratification you’ll receive from the client and feel for your worthwhile work will almost outweigh the disappointment when you lose the appeal. So let’s talk post conviction, shall we?

Post Conviction relief often focuses on a few set arguments: ineffective assistance of counsel, breach of one part or another of a fourth amendment right, and the good ole standby, prosecutorial misconduct. (Just as a side not folks, take the arguments professionally, if you’re being called ineffective, don’t let it make you mad, sometimes you’re just a vehicle to getting a second shot at an argument. Sometimes its just the appellate lawyer’s job to call anyone she can incompetent. I usually apologize to the person for having to take that step, but please, don’t take offense.)

Back to prosecutorial misconduct: I’ve read arguments which are great examples of misconduct (usually later deemed harmless error) and I’ve seen arguments that are just a shot in the dark. Rarely have I seen a win, and never in one of my own cases, based on a misconduct argument. But a momentous decision has just come down from the federal courts, and I’d like to discuss it a little, and its possible implications.

The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of appeals just disbarred a federal prosecutor, an action that hasn’t occurred in, reportedly, over ten years. Former assistant U.S. attorney  G. Paul Howes was disbarred for his conduct in a number of high profile murder and gang cases. Howes apparently used vouchers, intended to pay for witnesses’ reasonable expenses, to bribe informants’ relatives and significant others. Not only that, but Howes then repeatedly lied and hid the conduct from the investigators and the court.

Interestingly, the Board on Professional Responsibility voted only for a suspension for Howes’ conduct. Appently, in their mind, bribery and perjury aren’t *that* big of a deal. The Circuit Court disagreed. They disbarred him.

Nine convicted persons have already gotten reduced sentences based on the revelation of the misconduct. How many more are to follow is anyone’s guess, but its certainly a case any appeals lawyer would jump to take on.

Systemically, for appeals lawyers everywhere, not just in Washington DC, does this mean anything? My answer is: Maybe. Although the judicial decision against Howes is not precedent in any way except for cases against other prosecutors, the nine convicted persons’s appeals certainly can be. I also don’t think its necessary to get to the level that Howe was at to find it could be prosecutorial misconduct. There is no need to reach the level of disbarment to achieve something more than a harmless error through misconduct.

If you come upon an issue of prosecutorial misconduct, even if DC Circuit isn’t in your jurisdiction, and even if you’re in a state court, I think you should try to draw the connection. The strength of your argument can only be increased by showing how one instance of prosecutorial misconduct can truly be a long standing practice of misconduct. So try it, and let me know how it goes!

The Miranda Warnings

When a person is taken into police custody, they must be Mirandized. This means that the individual must be given a warning which clearly and concisely states the persons rights. You probably know the Miranda warning best from television shows, but in real life, a good statement of Miranda rights might be:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

The Miranda warnings originated from the case Miranda v. Arizona, where the United States Supreme Court determined that Ernesto Miranda had no way of knowing that he had the right not to confess, nor that he could get an attorney provided for him, and that was why he confessed to the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court determined that his confession was essentially coerced, and that to protect citizens, all persons must be read certain essential rights when they are taken into custody.

The Right to Remain Silent

Every person who is arrested has the right to remain silent. This comes from your Fifth Amendment right, which I discussed here. Although now we all hear that right on every law enforcement television show and movie out there, back in 1966, the warning was not known, and some people did not understand that they could remain silent and that doing so would not cause any problems for them.

The right to remain silent warning comes with a consequential statement: anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. This serves to drive home the warning that a person should remain silent. It shows the accused that any confessions will be considered valid. Prior to these warnings some people did not know whether their confessions were actually confessions, rather than just them talking to a friendly police officer. This forces the officers and the person to understand their roles: that of law enforcement vs. the accused- and the relationship is not always a friendly one.

The Right to an Attorney

Every accused person has the right to legal representation; this right is provided by the Fifth Amendment as well. This right is separate and distinct from the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which refers to a right to an attorney while in court. The Fifth Amendment right is a right given while being interrogated or questioned. Informing a person of this right lets a person know they are being seriously questioned and that they do not have to submit to questioning without legal advice.

The right would mean almost nothing without an assurance that even an impoverished person could get legal help, and so the warning contains this consequential statement: if you cannot afford an attorney, on will be provided for you. This lets people know that there is legal advice out there available for all persons, and not just people who can pay a lot for legal help.

Exception

There is one exception to the Miranda Warnings. The warnings do not have to be read if there is an on-going public emergency and officers believe the suspect has information which would end the emergency.

Waiving your Rights

You must affirmatively assert your Miranda Rights, or you waive them. You can assert your rights by stating that you want an attorney, by stating you won’t answer questions until you see an attorney, or a similar statement. Once you assert your Miranda Rights, the interview should immediately cease until you have had time to confer with an attorney. The officers cannot ask you any more questions without violating your rights.

You can waive your Miranda Rights either by responding to officers questioning, or by actually saying you are ignoring your Miranda Rights. Any attorney would counsel you not to waive your rights until you have spoken with an attorney and gotten some legal advice on the situation.

If you were taken into custody and interrogated by police, you should have been read you Miranda rights. If you were not, you may be able to have statements excluded from trial. If you think you were not properly read your Miranda rights, contact Shannon K. McDonald today.