Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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The Hidden Costs of Pleading Guilty

“I am just going to plead guilty. I do not need a lawyer.” People frequently tell me that it would be pointless to hire a lawyer because they know they are guilty. Many people like the idea of accepting responsibility and moving on with their lives. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple when the criminal justice system is involved. Most people know about traditional punishments like fines and jail time, but convictions have hidden costs.

Convictions have both legal and extra-legal penalties that are not apparent until several months or years have passed. With the permanency of computer records, these penalties often haunt people for the rest of their lives. And make no mistake, a guilty plea is a conviction and criminal records make no distinction as to whether someone has accepted responsibility. Here are some common hidden costs of convictions:

    • Driver’s Licenses – In Utah, licenses can be suspended for certain drug or alcohol offenses even if the criminal offense had nothing to do with driving.
    • Owning a Firearm – Any felony conviction and many misdemeanor convictions make it illegal to own firearms or other weapons. In Utah, a DUI conviction leads to a concealed weapons permit being denied or revoked for at least six years.
    • Student Loans – Many drug convictions make it harder or impossible to qualify for federally subsidized student loans.
    • Immigration – Convictions for felonies and misdemeanors can carry long-lasting effects for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen. Convictions may lead to deportation or make it harder to later become a U.S. citizen or change immigration status.
    • Applying for a Job – Many employers routinely conduct background checks.

This is not even an exhaustive list of the hidden costs of convictions. For many people, these hidden penalties are worse than the traditional penalties. Pleading guilty may ultimately be the right choice for a particular case, but a lawyer can structure a plea to minimize or eliminate these hidden costs. Not all crimes will cause a driver’s license to be suspended, for example, and it may be possible to plead to a related charge that does not have the potential for license suspension.

In addition to the hidden costs, a lawyer can also help with those costs the traditional costs of a conviction. These days prosecutors have a kitchen sink approach to charging people. Even assuming that someone is one of those rare people that do not care about maintaining a driver’s license, having a job, or being allowed to live in this country, walking into a court and pleading guilty is a foolish proposition. Often, one or more charges will be dropped in exchange for a plea, and having fewer charges can reduce the fine. You may also be neglecting the fact that you are not guilty of some of the charges. No one should let a vague notion that they have done something wrong substitute for a proper analysis of all the charges.

My lawyer fee could be partially or wholly paid just by getting charges dropped and fines reduced. It is always best to have a lawyer look over the charges and analyze the case as a whole. Many lawyers, including me, offer free consultations.

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Prosecutorial Discretion, Part 2: Plea Bargaining in the Modern Justice System

Part 1: Introduction

Justice is unbalanced.
Photo by “Frachet

The modern day practice of prosecutors is to charge a defendant with every charge that could apply, and then drop several charges during the plea bargaining phase. It was not always so. Until about 1970, plea bargaining was a rare occurrence in the United States. When people were charged with crimes, prosecutors were expected to prove them before a jury. There were exceptions, of course, but sooner or later they had to go before a jury and make a case. This kept them in check. The more crimes charged, the more preparation to be done for a trial. Including weaker charges would allow defense lawyers to focus on those charges and suggest they were overzealous. Prosecutors probably care a little too deeply about their win/loss record for each charge in their jury trials. (They look at it like baseball stats, in a way.)

In 1970, the Supreme Court gave its explicit blessing to plea bargaining. Article III of the Constitution provides, “The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.” Many legal experts were of the opinion that plea bargaining was unconstitutional. In Brady v. United States the Court said that plea bargaining is acceptable as long as the pleas are “knowing, intelligent acts done with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences.” The number of cases resolved through plea bargaining jumped and kept on growing so that few cases make it to trial now. Today, prosecutors regularly agree to drop one or more charges in exchange for a plea, and judges have no problem with this.

This period of plea bargaining has also coincided with a systematic increase in prison or jail sentences. Legislators have decided that they want to be “tough on crime” so that sentences are about three times as long as they were fifty years ago. Combine this with an explosion in the number of crimes that are on the books and a person can be facing a very long sentence, indeed. As a result, many defendants feel coerced into taking a plea. Some prosecutors threaten to bring further charges or prosecute friends and family, if a defendant does not take a plea offer.