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!

Ethical Dilemmas: Sex Offender Registration

I have worked on a number of sex offender cases, some in the initial defense, and some later on, dealing with the repercussions. The most memorable was a man who was convicted of statutory rape, required to register as a sex offender, later married the girl and had two children with her. He lives in a relatively small town, and word of his forced registration got out. He was fired from his job and has been unable to obtain another. To add insult to injury, his children’s school had him escorted from the grounds by a police officer. Apparently, they had a policy that no sex offenders would be allowed on school property, even to attend a parent teacher conference or a scholastic event which his child participated.

Now its not that I don’t think some sex offenders continue to pose a danger to some portion of society. But once a person has served their time, paid their debt, is it fair of society to shun them forever? We are guilty of this on a number of issues, including felon disenfranchisement in voting, felons owning firearms, and prevention of felons from obtaining certain jobs. These people are all perceived as an ongoing threat to society, but not sufficiently so to keep them locked away from it. I object to almost all of these laws, no matter the state or the severity, simply on a moral ground.

The sex offender issue came up recently in a United States Supreme Court case, Reynolds v. US. In Reynolds, a sex offender was convicted prior to federal law being passed requiring registration. Reynolds registered in 2005, and maintained registration in Missouri, until he decided to move to Pennsylvania, in 2007. There, he did not register, which is contrary to a Federal law, Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA,) requiring all sex offenders to register with police where they live and work, no matter where they were convicted, and no matter when.

The issue is that Reynolds was convicted before SORNA was passed, and it is only a decision by the Attorney General which stands as interpreting the law as requiring registration no matter when the person was convicted. So that creates 2 questions: 1. Did the Act require registration no matter when convicted, and 2. Does the text of the statute, which give the Attorney General power of interpretation, allow him to determine that the law applies to all no matter what.

The Court examined whether the act, in and of itself, could require all offenders to register, even if conviction occurred before SORNA was passed. The Third Circuit determined that that was indeed what the law required. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court stated that the Act itself did not require offenders to register. However, the Court also determined that the statute didn’t require registration of prior offenders unless and until the Attorney General stated otherwise.

Although part of the Third Circuit has been overturned, Reynolds still has to return and argue whether the Attorney General’s absolute rule of registration is valid. If the lower courts disagree with him on the validity of the Attorney General’s rule, then Reynolds still loses the case, and he, along with thousands of others, must register as sex offenders even if convicted thirty years ago of urinating in an alley.

I have worked with many unsavory characters in my time as a lawyer, some more likely to repeat an offense than others. But, just as our judicial system states that one is innocent until proven guilty, shouldn’t we give people the benefit of the doubt regarding repetition of offense? Is it right that my former client couldn’t go pick up his kids at school without being arrested? Is it right that we automatically condemn certain people, without considering circumstance and without hesitation? The Supreme Court doesn’t want to comment on that issue just yet.