You’re not a criminal defense lawyer if

you haven’t fantasized about doing this (for those who don’t want to click on the link just yet: a pd choked a prosecutor as a result of a case-related dispute). I know I have. And, just as in the story, it’s always been motivated by the law, not any personal animus. I find that the desire to choke a prosecutor rises particularly sharply during oral argument.

Being a non-violent person and all, my frustration is expressed solely in this way:

Is Tim Curry going to have to choke a b*tch?

If you’re not ready, neither is your client

War stories are a great way of passing time. It’s a slow day in the office and you end up in a long conversation with a colleague who’s been there and seen that. While mostly entertaining, the stories are also useful for one other thing: they’re a training tool. A veritable what’s what of what not to do.

I won’t bother you with this particular story, but there’s something to share, something that seems so obvious yet is often neglected by lawyers either because they don’t give a damn or don’t have the damn time.

If you’re not ready to plead, neither is your client.

Simple, isn’t it? Yet in the high-volume courts across the country, offers are routinely made and accepted or rejected on initial court dates or before investigation can be started or before you have the time to learn your client’s name and tell him from a hole in the wall.

If you wouldn’t know enough to take the offer, your client doesn’t either.

It’s difficult to do, resisting the tide that builds up, demanding swift disposition. It gets embarrassing, asking for continuance after continuance because the investigation isn’t complete. The caseload keeps piling up, the numbers look astronomical and ugly. I get it. There just isn’t enough time.

But this is non-negotiable, folks. Would you listen to a lawyer who said: “take this offer. I’m sure it’s a good one, but I can’t tell you why because I don’t know enough”? Obviously not. Yet we ask our clients to place their trust in us, to rely on our judgment and our opinion. The least we can do is take the time to make sure that we are in a position to recommend acceptance or rejection of that offer.

I’ve said it on occasion: “Sorry, judge. I need more time. I’m not ready to convey this offer to my client.” If I haven’t been dilatory in my handling of the case, what’s the judge going to say? After all, no one likes a habeas.

More than that, no one likes a client who’s forced into doing something because his lawyer didn’t take the time to make sure it was the right thing to do.

So the next time you’re being pushed into conveying an offer to a client or have a client who’s being rushed into accepting or rejecting, ask yourself: do you want to become a war story of the instructional kind?

Paying for injustice

Meet Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, arrested and convicted in 1995 for child sexual assault that he did not commit. Hidalgo spent 5 years out of a 5 1/2 year sentence before his conviction was reversed and the charges dismissed.

Meet Thomas White, also convicted for child sexual assault and who also spent 5 years in prison before a third jury finally acquitted him in 2005.

But Hidalgo and White have more in common that merely being falsely accused of terrible crimes for which they both spent long years in harsh conditions in prison. Both convictions were obtained by a failure of the system: in Hidalgo’s case, aided by the complete inexperience of his defense attorney in what amounted to a constructive denial of counsel; in White’s, horrifying misconduct by the police and prosecutors to hide exculpatory evidence.

Expanding Graham

In the other criminal justice opinion issued by SCOTUS today, a 6-3 court held in Graham v. Florida that life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes violates the Constitution’s ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishments.  The decision is a beautiful thing, for sure. Combined with Roper, the Supreme Court has now categorically banned the death penalty for juveniles and LWOP for those juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.

This, however, has left a gap in the juvenile jurisprudence, one that is sure to be addressed sooner rather than later. What of LWOP for those juveniles who have committed some sort of homicide?

I believe the issue is ripe for pickin’ and there may be enough votes on the Court to hold that such a sentence would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Consider the following quotes. First, the Court sets up the framework under which this claim is to be analyzed:

The present case involves an issue the Court has not considered previously: a categorical challenge to a term-of-years sentence. The approach in cases such as Harmelin and Ewing is suited for considering a gross proportionality challenge to a particular defendant’s sentence, but here a sentencing practice itself is in question. This case implicates a particular type of sentence as it applies to an entire class of offenders who have committed a range of crimes. As a result, a threshold comparison between the severity of the penalty and the gravity of the crime does not advance the analysis. Here, in addressing the question presented, the appropriate analysis is the one used in cases that involved the categorical approach, specifically Atkins, Roper, and Kennedy.

Shunning the case-by-case approach in favor of the “bright line” approach is a trend on the Court and certainly works in favor of those arguing that LWOP for all juveniles is cruel and unusual.

Taking stock of Comstock

[I can't believe no one's made the pun yet]

What Comstock is, what it isn’t and what it might very well be.

First, what Comstock isn’t. Despite the ominous newspaper headlines, it is my opinion – however uninformed – that Comstock does not directly stand for the proposition that it is Constitutionally permissible to indefinitely commit sex offenders beyond the expiration of their criminal sentences.

Justice Breyer’s decision explicitly reserves that question for another day:

“We do not reach or decide any claim that the statute or its application denies equal protection of the laws, procedural or substantive due process, or any other rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Respondents are free to pursue those claims on remand, and any others they have preserved.”

As one commentator notes, there may very well be viable challenges to the Federal statute in the yet-to-come Comstock II or other cases.

What Comstock is: a decision that holds (however unpersuasively and problematically) that civil commitment by the Federal government is a “necessary and proper” means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws. What that “enumerated power” is, is never mentioned by the majority opinion (the best analogy I’ve seen of this legal trickery is in this post).

Justice Thomas explains this succinctly (yes, I know. Shut up.):

Twice in jeopardy, 40 years apart

Back in 2007, when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania announced its intent to prosecute William Barnes for the death of officer Walter Barclay, eyebrows were raised. Barnes, you see, had already been tried for the 1966 shooting of Barclay and had been found guilty of attempted murder. Why was he not charged with murder at the first trial? Because Barclay wasn’t dead yet.

He died in 2007, more than 40 years after the shooting. The Commonwealth, already having exacted 26 years from Barnes, now 74,  for the attempted murder, now seeks to exact some more for the eventual death of Ofc. Barclay.

Barnes’ second trial for the act of shooting Barclay began today in Philadelphia. The Commonwealth will attempt to prove that the gunshot wound suffered by Barclay in ’66 – which left him wheelchair bound – caused the urinary tract infection in 2006 that ultimately killed him.

The defense will seek to show the jury that the Commonwealth cannot prove the causal link, relying in part on the fact that Barclay, despite being confined to a wheelchair:

was able to drive a specialized car, walk with braces, earn a college degree, marry and divorce three times and perform sexually, had been in three car accidents and had fallen out of his motorized wheel chair twice during the 41 years that he lived after being shot

Mark Bennett, in a comment to Scott’s post above, asked in 2007:

I must be missing something, because those articles don’t even discuss this question: How does a conviction for attempted murder not jeopardy-bar a prosecution for murder when the victim dies?

Padilla on sex offender registration, indirectly

Back when Padilla v. Kentucky was decided by the United States Supreme Court, the defense bar was quite excited not only by the relief it afforded criminal defendants, but also by the exciting possibility that the Court might be willing to take an honest look at the fictional distinction between direct and collateral consequences of a plea.

Aside from deportation, which the Court described as “long recognized [as] a particularly severe penalty”, there is one other “collateral” consequence that defense lawyers are in a constant battle against. And that is sex offender registration. So it was only a matter of time before some court in the country considered the severity of the consequence of sex offender registration in light of the principles of Padilla.

Thanks to Doc Berman, I came across this very recent New York Supreme Court Court of Appeals decision in NY v. Gravino, which addressed the question of whether sex offender registration is a collateral consequence. A divided court says yes.

While Padilla dealt explicitly with attorney performance, Gravino addressed the issue of whether a plea was knowing, intelligent and voluntary if the trial court did not inform the defendant of the registration requirement.

Despite acknowledging that sex offender registration (especially in New York) is a “severe penalty”, the majority recites the usual “it’s not a penal statute, but merely regulatory” bullshit in order to neatly classify registration as a collateral consequence as opposed to a direct consequence.

But here’s where Padilla comes in. As I mentioned before, Justice Stevens gave us a delicious quote to use and rely on: