Mercy of the Court & Bias in the Criminal Justice System
Interviewer: You talk about the prosecutors, judges, and police being jaded and political. I’m not asking you to point fingers, but is there such a thing as “the mercy of the court” people just throw themselves upon or is that not true?
Paul Geller: It can be true. I think the difficulty nowadays is that, in my opinion, judges who are viewed as (and I’m going to use this term loosely) “soft on crime” may find themselves transferred to another courthouse far away, doing something less serious in terms of the type of the caseloads they handle, etc. Having said that, there are some very well-respected, well-thought-of judges who are reasonable about circumstances.
I recently had a situation where a client of mine was nineteen-years-old, had committed a series of residential burglaries with two juveniles who had records. My client had no record at all. Quite frankly, my client put himself into the situation, not realizing the full extent of the severity of his actions. I’m not talking about a home invasion take-over robbery situation. This would be akin to three young men breaking into cars to steal car radios – serious enough, but certainly from a punishment perspective in the way that our legal system is set up, not the same as a residential burglary which has catastrophic consequences in that they’re considered strikes under California’s Three Strikes Law, which means that anyone that goes to state prison for these types of offenses, would be serving eighty percent rather than fifty percent.
There are additional enhancements that could make it, what we call, a “violent offense” causing a person to serve eighty-five percent if a person was present in the home. These young men were looking for uninhabited homes in the middle of the morning and were caught. Now, my client gave a full confession.
He actually led the police to another location that they had burglarized and tried to cooperate with the police. With strong familial support, complete cooperation with the police, absolutely no record, and no weapon was used or anything of that nature, he found himself with an “offer” from the district attorney’s office to go to state prison and to be housed in a facility with people who have committed violent offenses –much more serious crimes. That certainly would have made him come out a more “hardened criminal.”
This particular judge in a very strict district recognized that and after months of negotiations and discussions with the judge, he was willing to place my client on probation. Now, that is not to say that my client is “getting off scot free.” He is going to have felony strike convictions on his record for the rest of his life. Having said that, he has been doing positive things while in custody, finishing some college credits, and will have an opportunity to come out of jail and hopefully try to do something positive with his life, which is still going to be an uphill battle.
There are judges who will do things – I’m using the term “reasonable,” and I don’t think I’m using that term simply because I’m a defense attorney; that would suggest that reasonable means letting somebody walk without any type of punishment. I consider myself very levelheaded and reasonable about my requests. Having said that, there are definitely times where I am extremely vocal about the actions of prosecutor’s office or a judge in being overly aggressive in either filing cases or prosecuting cases or punishing.
Because I’ve had to be reasonable about the way I approach a case and certainly do everything for my client, at the same time, I have a very good rapport prosecutors and with judges when I do make those requests. So I think that’s beneficial to my clients in the long run.