Trial Judge to Appeals Court: Review MeEarlier this year, an opinion for the Supreme Court by Justice Anthony Kennedy noted a stunning and often overlooked reality of the American legal process: a vast majority of criminal cases — 97 percent of federal cases, 94 percent of state cases — are resolved by guilty pleas. “Criminal justice today,” he observed, “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”In this context, the recent rejection in a federal district court by Judge John Kane of a plea bargain deal between a defendant and federal prosecutors is truly startling. Judge Kane rejected the deal in part because the defendant waived his right to appeal to a higher court. The judge insisted the matter go forward to trial so that the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit could review it: “Indiscriminate acceptance of appellate waivers,” he said, “undermines the ability of appellate courts to ensure the constitutional validity of convictions and to maintain consistency and reasonableness in sentencing decisions.” The case is scheduled for trial next month in Denver.Waivers are a common but largely hidden element of plea bargains — which, in many federal cases, aren't really bargains because the power of prosecutors is often so much greater than that of the defendants or their lawyers. The process is closer to coercion. Prosecutors regularly “overcharge” defendants with a more serious crime than what actually occurred. The defendants must then choose between the risk of being found guilty at trial and getting a longer sentence than the alleged crime would warrant or a guilty plea in exchange for a lighter sentence. All but a tiny minority of defendants take the plea as the price of avoiding the crapshoot of a trial.In a sample of almost 1,000 federal cases around the country, agreements included waivers about two-thirds of the time and more often in some places. Every federal appeals court has ruled that in general waivers are enforceable as part of the efficient administration of justice. Some standard parts of waivers are outrageous, keeping defendants from appealing even if they become convinced that they received inadequate counsel to accept a defective plea agreement where the sentence was not lighter or where the prosecutor wrongly withheld evidence. Any defense lawyer or prosecutor who asks a defendant to sign a waiver ruling out appeals on those grounds is protecting himself.An important element of justice is missing even when the defendant and the government believe a plea bargain is fair and when an appeal waiver is narrow so the defendant can appeal about certain specified issues. Congress gave appeals courts the power to review federal sentences to ensure the government applies the law reasonably and consistently.Without an appeals court’s policing, the odds go up that prosecutors will do neither. Our system of pleas then looks more like a system of railroading.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Editorial Thoughts on Waivers in Plea Agreements
The New York Times issued an editorial on the unfairness of appeal waivers found in the majority of plea agreements filed in federal court. The entire piece is below reprinted below: