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Will a Judge punish me for exercising my right to go to trial?


Yes, they will, although judges rarely admit it. As a Jacksonville criminal attorney,I have seen this happen with regularity. One of the toughest decisions a client faces is whether to take a case to trial or accept the government's plea offer. Most criminal cases end with an agreed upon disposition, otherwise known as a plea bargain. In federal court, more than 90 percent of criminal cases are disposed of with a plea. Plea bargaining has become such an intregal part of the criminal justice system that the courts, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers expect this as a probable outcome. And when it doesn't happen, some judges feel that their time is being unnecessarily taken up or wasted if they have to preside over a trial (even though this is what they are paid to do).

All criminal defense lawyers have experienced a judge's covert and sometimes overt warning that things will be much better for their client if they accept the government's plea offer. Many judge's feel that trials are a waste of taxpayers money or judicial resources. Unfortunalely, judges also have bosses that review how many cases they have disposed of during a calendar year. A plea bargain takes much less of the court's time than having to select a jury, have witnesses called, make rulings, draft jury instructions and the like.

In Herman v. State of Florida, a trial judge in Orange County, Florida imposed a one thousand dollar fine on a defendant because he exercised his right to begin a trial. Herman was charged with attempted second degree murder, aggravated battery with a firearm and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Midway through his jury trial, Herman decided to accept a plea offer from the State. The State agreed to dismiss the attempted murder charge if Herman would plead no contest to the other two counts and accepted a prison sentence. When Herman accepted the plea bargain, the trial judge, on his own, stated:

"I'll fine him a thousand dollars. I'll refer that to collections court. I usually fine people who go to trial. And the reason for that is it's punitory [sic]. He's taking up public resource, he needs to pay. He can pay when he gets out of prison at a rate of $50 a month through collections court."

Herman appealed the fine and the Florida Appellate Court agreed with him, stating "...a trial court may not impose a fine simply because the defendant exercised his or her right to a trial. [A]ny judicially imposed penalty which needlessly...deters the exercise of the Sixth Amendment right to demand a jury trial is patently unconstitutional." Wilson v. State (citation omitted), Walek v. State (citation omitted).

Lesson Learned:

While most Judges are hardworking and professional, many also harbor the sentiments of the trial judge in the Herman case. However, they would never reveal these sentiments. I was seated in the audience in a Jacksonville courtroom recently and observed a sentencing hearing before a judge I admire and respect. During the hearing, the prosecutor mentioned that the defendant had been made a plea offer of 10 years prior to trial. The defendant decided to exercise his Constitutional right to a jury trial. A jury convicted him. The judge asked defense counsel if , in fact, the defendant had been made a 10 year offer by the State before trial. The defense lawyer confirmed that he had. The judge sentenced the defendant to 15 years in prison. Did the court punish the defendant for deciding to put the State to it's proof and go to trial rather than accepting a plea bargain? You be the judge. The Law Office of Richard Landes can help you decide whether to plea bargain or go to trial in the Jacksonville, St. Johns, Clay and Nassau County areas. Call 904 343-4556 for a free, no obligation phone consultation.

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