Seattle Felony Criminal Advice: Never Take the Plea
If it was a year ago and you were brought up on charges, I'd have suggested you might not want to take the plea deal, even if you believe you committed the crime for which you were accused. Today it's a whole new world, and you'd have to be crazy to take a plea deal today. The system is now as bankrupt financially as it always has been spiritually, and the chances that you'll face a worse fate for facing trial is finally approaching zero.
The system has been broken for a very long time. If you've got a million dollars, you can still hire exceptional counsel, and walk away a free man no matter what the crime, regardless of whether or not you did it. OJ got away with murder, and so did Robert Blake (and maybe William Shatner,) but the list of wealthy defendants that walked away without so much as a slap on the wrist is as long as my arm.
Especially if you are represented by a public defender, the cost for your trial is going to cost the state somewhere around $10,000 per day, and this is a huge punishment for the state, even if you think you'll lose the case. And if you are sure you're going to lose, even if you're innocent, make a circus out of it. Drag it on for days, weeks or months if you must.
You can read punishment in a few different ways. The way in which we mean it is fairly inocuous. We mean that, if the state brings charges, they should have the resources needed to afford you your constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. 90-95% of all charges result in a plea deal, which is in-and-of-itself a miscarriage of justice. If they have the proof, there should be no problem bring the case to a trial. If there isn't sufficient proof (or there are other logistical reasons why the case is invalid,) then you should walk free, as is your right as an American.
The plea deal won't get better, but you're outcome won't get worse.
The prosecution likes to play the used car salesman role and tell you that you only have until a certain time to take the deal, or that it won't get any better, but it's all a head game. It's extremely rare that the prosecutor making the offer has even looked at your case. They don't know if you're guilty, innocent, or if you were even in the state at the time. We watched a case in 2003 for a story (we later had to kill because disgraced former Lynnwood judge Stephen Conroy wasn't sufficiently considered a public figure for our article) where the accused was brought all the way to trial before the prosecutor even opened the file, at which time he realized there was no case and petitioned for the case to be dismissed. The defendant had been offered 14-days in jail with five years of supervision... understandably, he declined.
So when you're thinking about whether or not to take the plea, consider the sum costs to the state for the trial, and consider how crippling it may be for them:
1 - Days, weeks or months of the public defender's time. They work cheap, but there are only so many of them, and cases are simply not expected to go to trial.
2 - Days, weeks or moths of the state prosecutor's time. They cost even more than the defender, and they have to show up every bit as often as your attorney.
3 - Days, weeks or months of the police and other witnesses needed for the trial. If there are witnesses, the court has to work around them, and the state usually has to pay them for their time. Police are on the clock, and they earn like $30/hour for sitting out in the hallway before your trial.
4 - Days, weeks or months of the judge, court clerk, bailiff and other court employees. The court is an expensive place to run. Judges earn more than all but the best attorneys, and the court reporter alone makes $60,000+ for her time.
5 - Days, weeks or months of the jury. This is a low cost, but it runs easily in the hundreds of dollars per day, and thousands if it goes past a week or two.
6 - Full state medical, dental, vision, retirement and other benefits for every single person employed in the courtroom, not to mention the utilities, media servies, security and other costs mandated by the court. This includes the guy standing downstairs at the door with the magnetic wand. Sure, he's on salary, but if the court can't get through your case in a plea, they have to push out other cases for later, and the costs add up quickly.
7 - The cost of incarcerating other accused persons while the court and staff are unavailable. As long as you're taking up that courtroom, nobody else can be put on trial, since the room, judge, attorneys (on both sides) and all staff are tied up dealing with your case.
8 - If you're represented by the public defender, they are obligated to file an appeal on your behalf (at least in Washington state) and that requires additional cost to the state on the defense, prosecution and judicial sides.
At any step in the court process, something may go wrong. If the cop can't appear, you'll either get off or the court will have to extend the trial by a day, which will cost them another $10,000. If the jury misbehaves, you can get a mistrial. If something simple you weren't aware of comes to light, the case may be dismissed.
If you take the plea, you're guilty. If you go to court, you're maybe not guilty, and the punishment is unlikely to be any worse, so make them earn the conviction. Don't just give it to them. Nobody likes a quitter.
Whether or not you think you might be guilty in the court's eyes, here are some things you need to consider:
1 - Most of the courts are only after profit. They want everyone to plea out quickly so they can rake in substantial income. If you fight for your rights, they have to pay far more than your fines could ever cover, so they're more likely to let it go.
2 - Public defenders are trained to railroad you into a plea, because they're paid the same if you fight it or surrender, and it's much easier if you give up. They've already got their pay, make them do the work. The outcome can't be much worse no matter what they tell you. If you don't believe them, ask for a new attorney. If you have no confidence in your council, you can get a new attorney in Washington State. Once you try to do that, they'll bend over backwards to keep you.
3 - The guilty conviction is unlikely to be worse than the plea bargain you were offered. In one case we followed last year, the community service was the same, the court fees were less than what was offered on the plea (and they were allowed to be exchanged for community service, rather than cash), and voting rights eligibility is no worse than it would have been on the plea. Basically, if he'd have taken the plea, it would have been the same as if he fought it out. As it was, he lost, but later won on appeal and got everything back. You don't get to appeal on a plea bargain.
4 - If you accept a plea deal, you can NEVER appeal it. Once you take the plea on record, you're guilty for life, no matter what the circumstances may have been. Even if the guy that did the crime confesses, you have no way of getting your good name back since you already confessed and plead guilty.
5 - If you decide to fight your case, it may be thrown out. There are a dozen different reasons your case me be thrown out of court. Maybe there's a warrant that wasn't issued, or was issued improperly, a violation of human rights, or that the arresting officer was himself working for other criminal interests. If you fight the case, you can win on these grounds, but if you take the plea, you're guilty for life.
6 - You may win on appeal. In the case of the trial we followed over the summer of 2008, the defendant was found guilty. It was supposed to be a 1-day trial, with a half-day of jury deliberation. It turned in to a 2-day trial with 3-days of jury deliberation, but it ended in a GUILTY verdict. The client used the state mandated public defender appeal process (completely free for qualifying defendants) and he won the appeal.
That means the state of Washington spent between $50,000 and $60,000, and the defendant still walked free. Mind you, he had to pay thousands in court fees (about the same as the plea deal) and serve over 200 hours of community service, but the case was eventually thrown out, the fines were refunded to him, and he became instantly eligible to sue to the state for compensation for the community service hours.
Basically, the advice is that, no matter what your charge, what your defense, or what you're going to face, you owe it to yourself to fight it. Unless you know you did the crime, and you're willing to face the consequences, you should strongly consider fighting it.
In the end, it's a crap shoot. Guilty people walk free every day (especially if they have money), and the innocent are frequently sentenced to life or worse (usually if they have a public defender.)
If you take the plea deal, you're nothing more than an ex-con that pumped some money into the system in fines and court fees. Make them earn it. If you go to court, it's very, very likely that the worst you will face will be no worse than the plea deal, though it could be.
In that 2008 case we followed, which was later overturned, we later learned that the primary officer on the case, Detective Tom Bacon (that's not an oink-oink pig joke, that's his real name,) was as corrupt as he was seasoned in the system. He had decades of decorated service with Seattle Police Department, but it later came out that the entire case was corrupt. He had promised the defendant protection, and threatened his livlihood in connection with another case, and was even told not to participate in the investigation of this case, but he still put himself right in the middle of it.
Detective Thomas Bacon, a seasoned SPD employee (who was himself shot some years back in the line of duty, thus granting him his back-office desk job), had inarguably crossed the line. He promised the defendant protection (which he had no authority to offer, and then stated he never offered,) and then threatened to take his computers (effectively putting him out of business, according to his own words,) which was also illegal. Detective Bacon had no authority to offer the promise, and no grounds on which to assert such threats, but he did.
When the defendant called him out on his threats and promises, he arrested him on these seemingly unfounded charges. He personally arrested him (against the orders of his supervisor), paraded him in cuffs in front of his neighbors, and left him standing in a yellow-painted box for hours without opportunity to sit, communicate with the outside world, or even loosen the cuffs that had already marred his wrists to purple for days, leaving permananet damage.
As of now, the case has been overturned, and the State of Washington has yet to file new charges. The defendant in this case, who has requested his name be withheld for legal and security reasons, has yet to decide what course of action will be taken moving forward. He has suggested that this wound has already run deep, and that he may take serious legal actions against the officer, but he has not yet made a final decision.
IF YOU ARE CONVICTED OF A CRIME YOU DID NOT COMMIT
Do not take the plea deal. You are constitutionally afforded the right to a trial by a jury of your peers. Even if you think you might lose, you owe it to yourself and to others in your position to stand up for what you know is right.
If the judge punishes you unfairly over-and-above the plea offer, you may have grounds for a retrial right there. Much more commonly, something will come up during the trial (or appeal) that will get you off for the charges leveled against you.