First-Time Offenders

Interviewer: Okay. Since you mentioned that it’s very hard to get out of the system once you’re in it, what do you say to someone for whom it’s their first offense, and maybe it’s not even that serious yet? They think, “Oh, it’s my first offense; it’s no big deal. I’ll just plead guilty and get it over with.”

Paul Geller: I always talk to potential clients that call me whether they are financially capable of hiring me or not. One thing I tell each and every one of them is, “You never want to walk in and simply plead guilty, even if you feel you made a mistake or you did something wrong, because that’s really a moral question that we all deal with regardless of how you handle it from the legal perspective.” In other words, if I have a client – and I’ve had this happen numerous times – who walks into my office and tells me that they did something wrong and this is what the police arrested them for, I will always explain to them that I appreciate their honesty and wanting to take responsibility for their actions.

Having said that, my job as the attorney is to defend them to the best of my ability and to make sure that the prosecutor proves their cases or can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the legal arena that we’re arguing and discussing. So, I will do everything in my power to legally defend them so that this poor decision or action that this person took doesn’t scar them for the rest of their life.

I will then talk to them about the types of choices they made or the positions they put themselves in to hopefully not be in this position again. So, that what I was saying when I meant I take the term counselor to heart, because I do believe that the satisfaction in this job for me as a criminal defense attorney comes from both legally trying to defend someone and, if necessary, take them to trial and being a well-respected and aggressive trial attorney, while also trying to counsel people and make sure some mistake that they may have made or poor decision doesn’t inhibit them for the rest of their life.

Interviewer: We talked about someone thinking, “Oh, it’s my first time; I’ll just plead guilty and get it over with.” What happens to someone if they’re guilty of even the lowest level criminal offense and sometimes years later they run into trouble with the law again? Are they labeled automatically as a repeat offender or do the stakes get a lot higher? What happens?

Paul Geller: They absolutely do because what happens is a prosecutor gets a new filing and they flip open the file and they look at the person’s rap sheet. That’s generally the first thing that they will look at so that they have a better perspective as they’re reading the police report, which oftentimes is incorrect and/or jaded from the perspective of a law enforcement officer.

So, they’re creating that picture of that person and the action that the police officer said is a crime. It may have been a situation where the person years ago should not have pled guilty but felt like they didn’t really know anything about the system or what the consequences would be so maybe they were placed on probation so it was no big deal and they moved on with their life.

Now they find themselves in a situation that could have some serious consequences and the prosecutor is reading that police report with the perspective in the back of their mind that this person is a repeat offender. All it will show is a conviction; it’s not going to show, “I did it because I just wanted to move on with my life quickly and that was that.”

It shows repeat offender. The most important thing to do is to protect from something like that happening. As I said, we’ve all put ourselves in situations where we may be made poor choices. I know I have and, for whatever reason, I was able to deal with those things without it being part of the system. That could be very different. Had that been different, I never would have been a district attorney.

I’ve spoken with prosecutors currently who are in management and they are of the exact same opinion. The problem, however, now is the days of the slap on the wrist from a police officer or a prosecutor for doing something silly or putting yourself in that type of situation from a poor decision are gone. I feel very pleased with my work when I’m able to help someone through that type of situation with a positive outcome.

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