June 09, 2006

WA: it's pay to play in B'ham court

The Tri-Cities' prosecutorial-leniency-for-donations-to-charity story has other Washington papers looking into their local prosecutors' practices. In Whatcom County, the payoffs aren't to charity; they're going to the county drug enforcement fund. From the Bellingham Herald:

Is justice for sale in Whatcom County?

Neither Joshua S___ nor Joseph H___ had any criminal history when they bought $15,000 worth of marijuana... But then their cases diverged dramatically... Sutton, who put up most or all of the money for the drug buy, paid $9,040 to a fund administered by the Whatcom County prosecutor. He was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge... H____, a construction worker, pleaded guilty as charged and was sentenced to 45 days on a work crew. The felony on his record means he loses the right to vote, and it could affect his ability to land a job for the rest of his life.

Their cases illustrate the inequality of an unusual system in which defendants with quick access to $2,000 or more can often "buy down'' the charges against them... The money, which must be paid up front, is directed to the county's drug enforcement fund. It's disbursed by Prosecutor Dave McEachran with court approval...

But several lawyers, law professors and other prosecutors drew a distinction. This isn't restitution, they said, and it's not a penalty prescribed by law: It's a payment to avoid punishment.

"Plea bargaining isn't always pretty, but this just seems to make a mockery of it,'' said Helen Anderson, who teaches criminal law at the University of Washington law school.

"Yikes, it sounds like the sale of indulgences in the old Catholic church,'' said Janet Ainsworth, a criminal law professor at Seattle University. "If you were to have a continuum between paying a fine and bribery, this is somewhere in between.''

John Strait, a legal ethics expert at Seattle University Law, said... (t)here's also a potential conflict of interest... because McEachran's office is making charging decisions based in part on the money it can obtain for a fund he administers. "We should be punishing people for what they've done, rather than by who's going to give us money..''

In another place and time with a similar set-up, I was torn between my ethical obligation to get my client the best possible outcome, and my moral sense that the whole racket stank. I used to explain the deal to a client by saying, "it's sort of paying a legal bribe. " Yikes, indeedy!

1 Comment:

J tabor said...

Thank you