In the general election on November 4, 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47 with almost 60% of the vote. The Proposition will impact a wide range of sentences in California courts, and in the federal courts as well. A number of crimes that could be, and often were, charged in California as felonies, such as commercial burglary, forgery, grand theft, and certain drug crimes, will now be charged as misdemeanors, so that their effect on a person’s criminal history will be substantially diminished. A whole range of state felony drug offenses that could result in enhanced sentences in federal drug cases, even life imprisonment, or career offender status under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, have overnight become relatively harmless misdemeanors.
Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences. This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced. Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison). These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case. The record can then be expunged.
The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated. While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community. For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.
As the Supreme Court recently acknowledged in Lafler v. Cooper (2012), American criminal justice “is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Nowhere is that statement truer than in the lower courts, where millions of misdemeanor arrests are resolved, or, to use the lingo of the criminal court, “disposed of,” without even a whiff of a trial.
In a provocative New York Times Op-Ed, “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” Michelle Alexander raised the prospect of organizing people to refuse to plea bargain. Professor Jenny Roberts takes a cue from Alexander and manages to be even more rebellious. In Crashing the Misdemeanor System, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1089 (2013), she urges much more specifically that defense attorneys focus their energy on taking down extant misdemeanor systems that are best characterized as guilty plea mills.
Roberts argues that “the most minor misdemeanor conviction has serious implications for so many people,” and bemoans the fact that nevertheless most misdemeanors are given short shrift by all institutional players — judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Her article is a clarion call for defense attorneys to reimagine, refocus and reinvigorate their misdemeanor practice, especially in an era of massive arrests for minor crimes made popular by Broken Windows, or quality-of-life, policing.
The District Attorney of Oneida County (WI) has decided not to file criminal charges against forty teenagers implicated in a widespread sexting scandal in the Rhinelander school district. His decision was reportedly based on concerns raised by parents and others about the collateral consequences of a criminal record. In a joint press release, school officials and the local sheriff noted that felony charges could have limited students’ future employment prospects:
Although Wisconsin law does consider incidents such as this as felony offenses, and it does not have disciplinary alternatives for such offense, criminal charges were not filed against the students involved, which could be detrimental to the future of the students and, in turn, could be harmful to our community as these students will not be allowed to enter certain occupations
Under Wisconsin law, anyone convicted of a felony, no matter how minor, is permanently barred from obtaining over 100 professional licenses, and subject to many other adverse effects that may last a lifetime.
Instead of charging the students criminally, the school district is bringing in a Wisconsin Department of Justice special agent to give presentations to the students and parents about the seriousness of taking inappropriate photographs and distributing them on social media. Ten of the forty students who sexted on school grounds got one-day suspensions, and students who behavior violated the school athletic code were suspended for certain events.
The editor wonders whether such a resolution would be likely in an urban school setting.
Which is a better outcome for a defendant in a criminal case: a) dismissal of all charges; or b) finding of guilt with probation or fine? Although most defendants and their attorneys would without hesitation choose option a), the choice is not always clear cut for some young defendants in in at least one Midwestern state.
So why might a former client say that “I can’t get a job because the charges against me were dismissed“? Or ask “ Why didn’t my lawyer tell me to plead guilty?” How is there a potential advantage of a conviction compared to dismissal?
In Wisconsin, computerized court records make it easy for the public, including prospective employers, to see public records of court cases, including charges that have been dismissed. However, a statute (Wis. Stat. sec. 973.015) allows for certain records to be sealed, depending upon the defendant’s age and the classification of the crime. However, the statute does not allow for sealing records in cases that resulted in dismissal, so they remain accessible through computerized searches.
Therefore, if a defendant is greatly concerned about the potential effect of the record on future employment (or other effect on reputation), an expunged record may be preferable to a public record of a dismissed charge. The defense attorney should at least be aware of the options and explain them to the client, rather than assuming which option the client would prefer. This example also shows that it is critically important for defense lawyers to be aware of the relief that may be available to avoid or mitigate collateral consequences.