Monday, June 29, 2020

What is a good plea bargain?

     Most criminal cases plea bargain rather than proceed through trial.  Typically the defendant agrees to admit (more or less) to having committed some crime or crimes in exchange for a reduced sentence (consequences like jail or prison, fines, classes, a criminal history etc.).  The more serious the charged crimes, or the more extensive the defendant's criminal history, the less sentence reduction - the less of a bargain - should be expected.

     So what is a "good" plea bargain?  Here is a general list of the most common plea agreements in descending order of how good a bargain they can be:

1.  Dismissal of all charges with no sentence terms or conditions.  This is rare mainly because once a case is started prosecutors are loathe to dump it.  An overwhelming lack of evidence usually underlies such a dismissal.  Indeed, typically this is less a plea agreement than an acknowledgement by the prosecution that the case should not have been started in the first place.

2.  Deferred prosecution, sometimes called a diversion.  The prosecution agrees to dismiss the case if the defendant timely completes whatever terms or conditions are agreed upon or otherwise required.  The defendant does not admit to having committed any crimes.

3.  Deferred sentence, sometimes called a deferred judgment and sentence (or "DJS").  This is like a diversion except the defendant pleads guilty (or no contest if ok'd by the prosecutor and the judge) to something.  If he or she timely completes the required terms and conditions, that plea is withdrawn and the case dismissed.

4.  Guilty (or no contest) plea to a lesser crime or crimes with lesser/fewer or minimal sentence requirements.  For example, the defendant admits to having committed a crime less or different than the ones charged in exchange for no jail/prison or reduced jail/prison.  This is the most common plea agreement.

5.  Open sentence.  The defendant admits to a lesser or different crime or crimes and the sentence is left up to the judge.  Sometimes a sentence "cap" is agreed to whereby for example the sentence won't exceed a certain period of jail or prison time (subject, as with all sentence terms and conditions, to court approval).

     Again, generally speaking, the higher up this list a defendant seeks to climb, the longer (and more expensive) the case will be.  Every case is different and nothing in the law is guaranteed.  The slightest difference can make all the difference in how the case resolves or not.  The more serious the case or the defendant's history, the fewer options.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Dropping criminal charges

Can the "victim" of a crime "drop the charges?"  Short answer is No.

On TV crime shows, you'll often hear the victim of a crime - one might think for example the person assaulted, or robbed, or defrauded, or hurt by whatever crime was committed - say he or she wants to drop the charges, or doesn't want to press charges.  The TV police and prosecution meekly comply, and the case is dismissed.  This is fiction.

Unlike a civil case - where the plaintiff is the victim (the person claiming to be hurt) and the defendant is the person who supposedly did the hurting, in a criminal case the plaintiff is/are the "People" of the city, state or U.S. government doing the prosecuting.

Look at the caption (the title or heading) on any criminal complaint or indictment or other charging document:  It does not name the person we think of as the victim.  That person is not a real party to the proceedings and has no deciding say if or how the case is commenced, prosecuted or resolved.  That decision rests with the prosecuting attorney's office (heavily influenced by the police etc. investigating the matter or who made the arrest), subject sometimes to court approval.

Although various recent so-called victims rights acts or laws mandate the person hurt be kept apprised of or have some say in the case, those laws generally stop short of granting veto power or even a vote.

In conclusion, people don't drop charges, prosecutors do (and rarely at that).

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Does a pandemic excuse performance of a lease or other contract?

The short answer is Maybe.

Contract law generally seeks to enforce the parties' intent.  For example, parties to a lease agree that in exchange for paying rent the tenant temporarily is entitled to the premises.  Civil courts are available to enforce the parties' rights and responsibilities in the event of a breach (failure to perform).

"Impossibility of performance" is a defense to a breach of contract claim.  In Colorado for example (and typical of most jurisdictions), the doctrine precludes legal responsibility for breach of contract where (1) the defendant's (say, the tenant's) performance of her promise was made impossible as a result of (among other things) an "Act of God" (natural disaster or similar - like a pandemic?), (2) the tenant could not have reasonably foreseen the event, and (3) the tenant did not cause the event.

What is considered "impossible?"  Impossible here means "the contract cannot be performed physically or without violating the law or without incurring extreme and unreasonable difficulty, expense, or risk of injury or loss to persons or property."  Colorado Civil Jury Instruction 30:24.

If the tenant timely gave notice of (and later as necessary proved) impossibility of performance, it might excuse rent payment but not entitle her to remain on the premises - leaving her with the very practical problem of finding another place to live - or automatically result in the mythical security deposit refund.

A basis "of the doctrine of impossibility is the unconscionability of insisting on strict performance [of the lease or other contract] in the light of radically changed circumstances."  Contracts, by Calamari and Perillo, p. 509 (West 1982).  And in these strange times, Who can say how things will go.

Indeed, every situation is different and consulting an experienced attorney wisely is recommended before proceeding in legal matters.  -Sanderson Law, P.C., 303-444-8846.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Clearing up an arrest warrant

An arrest warrant is a court issued document directing law enforcement to take into custody for alleged crimes the person named, pending bail and/or an appearance before a judge.  Custody means the local jail.  

Warrants can issue without the suspect knowing.  Often the warrant remains in effect until for example the person is pulled over and notified (possibly issued a summons) or picked up during a routine traffic stop or showing his/her passport for a flight.  The more serious the crimes listed in the warrant, the more likely police actively will be looking for the suspect and arrest him/her anywhere anytime found.  Arrest warrants can lead to searches of the person and/or property and related property seizure (and even forfeiture proceedings).

Calling the clerk of the court believed to have issued a warrant, the local jail, or the local sheriff's office will reveal whether a warrant is pending, the criminal charges, and what (if any) bail bond has been set.  Assuming there is a warrant, best to have the person turn himself/herself in ASAP, early in the morning, early in the week.  This will eliminate the chance of being picked up at an otherwise especially inconvenient time, and maximize the chance of not having to spend a night or weekend in jail.

The turning-in process typically goes like this:  The person walks into the local jail facility and tells reception he/she is there to clear up a warrant.  An officer/deputy will then escort him/her back into a processing room for identification, fingerprints and photographs.  The person is then held at the facility until the bond is squared away and a court date set.  At best it can take an hour or half a day, depending on how busy they are, how staffed they are, how lazy they are, their paperwork requirements etc.  Worst case scenario could mean remaining in custody until brought before a judge either at the jail or the courthouse, or indefinitely if no bail is allowed.  

Try calling the jail ahead of time to learn more about how long its process takes, the nature and amount of any bail bond, and any other particulars.  Other than identification, do not bring anything else.  Do not discuss the case or try to explain anything!  You are there only to clear up the warrant and get your case going.  If you have a lawyer or are in the process of getting one tell the jail personnel that right away.  Keep your lawyer updated.

Warrants don't just go away.  They need to be cleared up, the sooner the better, including so that the underlying criminal charges can be addressed and to avoid unwanted searches and seizures etc.