Report: Federal Prosecutors Trample Constitutional Rights in War on Drugs

Categories: Courts, Crime

Human Rights Watch
The De Facto Death of the Federal Criminal Jury Trial
The 7th Amendment to the Constitution allows for the right to a jury trial. The 8th Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments." A new report by Human Rights Watch shows that federal criminal defendants, especially those charged with drug crimes, are having their constitutional rights arguably stymied by aggressive federal prosecutors.

This is because, with mandatory minimums and other tools at their disposal, prosecutors have the whip-hand over federal drug defendants.

For example, in one case from central Florida where a woman rejected a 10-year plea deal for possessing 50 grams of cocaine and chose to go to trial, the federal prosecutor took measures to enhance her punishment at the sentencing phase. Because of such, she ended up receiving a life sentence. There is no parole for federal crimes, so she will die in prison. When Human Rights Watch asked the federal prosecutor if he thought the punishment was just, he refused to comment.

This is not an isolated case. The federal criminal trial has largely disappeared -- only three percent, the HRW Report tells us, of federal criminal defendants go to trial. Of those three percent who roll the trial dice (and, let's face it, make the prosecutor work; a trial is much more difficult than drafting a plea agreement) end up "receiv[ing] sentences on average 11 years longer than those who" took a plea agreement. In federal district court for the Southern District of Texas -- which includes Houston, Galveston, McAllen and Corpus Christi -- over 97 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty (all of the Texas federal courts have over 95 percent plea rates).

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This is an incredibly misleading and poorly-written article. I'm surprised this ever made it past an editor. Prosecutors are blamed throughout the article for harsh sentences, but the reality is that they have little to no discretion over sentences. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines mean that sentences are by-the-book, and are known to defendants prior to trial. The author finally discloses that fact - on the second page in the last paragraph. The Press ought to be ashamed of that headline, "Prosecutors Trample Constitutional Rights..." If the author has a problem with mandatory sentencing guidelines, he should blame lawmakers, not prosecutors.


@77006-er Your ignoring several key parts of what is going on here. Firstly, guidelines and mandatory minimums affect the judges, not the prosecutors. The judges are beholden to what is written. The prosecutors decide what is presented to the judge in the form of actual charges and the specific penalty modifiers that may be added at the end (was there a gun in the suspect's car? yes? automatic +X years!). Therein lies the discretion that the HP and Human Rights Watch says is being abused.

Let's say you're a defendant in a liquor store robbery. You didn't commit the crime but there's basically no evidence of that (your alibi "I was drunk at home watching TV" wasn't very convincing and no one is believing you when you say you lost your favorite sweatshirt, that the actual thief was wearing, earlier that week on the bus). The prosecutor then offers you a deal: plead guilty to the robbery charge or else go to trial with the robbery charge + a weapons violation for bringing a gun into a liquor store + the gun was reported stolen at some point and never reported found (check this article ) + carrying an unlicensed concealed handgun (he walked in with it in his hand in his pocket) + 14 counts of assault for all the people in the store he pointed the gun at as he swung it around saying "on the ground!" + 2 counts of battery for running into a couple on the way out + underage possession of alcohol (for funsies let's say you're 20) + make it a hate crime because he said something racist while pointing the gun at the clerk + .... ad infinitum. That's where the abuse lies.

Yes, lawmakers share significant responsibility for this erosion of basic constitutional rights. And they will get their day in the pages of the Press. But this article is specifically about how prosecutors are using those laws and the discretion provided within to trample on the rights of defendants. Just because one is guilty does not mean the other is necessarily innocent.

Note to HP: your comment system ate my response the first time when it reloaded after giving me the option to post anonymously. This is unacceptable behavior for a commenting system. Even if an "account" didn't exist when the comment was begun, the page should remember the comment in cases where it forces itself to reload and doesn't warn the user.

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