Houston Criminal Defense Lawyers

divider

Archive


Prosecutorial Discipline

/ 0 Comments

disciplineFor decades, discipline for prosecutors was atypical and virtually nonexistent. Times are changing, though, it seems. First, Ken Anderson and Charles Sebesta and now line prosecutors.

In a case of first impression for disciplinary actions, Denton County prosecutor William Schultz found out the hard way that Brady has meaning beyond the courts. While the courts might impose a mistrial, vacate a sentence, or even possibly sanction a prosecutor, the State Bar Disciplinary Panel could enforce broader rules and even discipline. After withholding Brady information, the Board of Disciplinary Appeals pointed out the error of his ways (Schultz had assumed he could determine what was or was not Brady and therefore what was or was not to be turned over) and affirmed his partially probated suspension from the practice of law.

Now, former Williamson County prosecutor Mark Brunner has agreed to a fully probated suspension based on his lack of candor untruthfulness to the court. Brunner represented the State of Texas in a series of charges stemming from a bank robbery. During the prosecution, Brunner was able to reach a plea bargain with the defendant. Apparently, the plea was quite the bargain and even the court was concerned about it. Upon inquiry by the court, Brunner stated he had spoken to the victims and the bank owner and that they were satisfied with the plea agreement. Before the judge accepted the plea, he affirmatively stated, “… but for the acquiescence of this agreement by the victims in this case, I would not be going along with this agreement.”

The court, relying on Brunner’s assertion, approved the plea bargain and sentenced the defendant accordingly. However, Brunner had not spoken with the victims about the plea and none of them were aware of the plea agreement. And, Brunner did nothing to correct his false statement made to the court or relied upon by the court. Thus, the Panel concluded Brunner violated Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 3.03(a)(1): a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal.

In his defense, Brunner offered:

When asked why he lied to the Judge, Brunner told KXAN via text message: “I answered the bar with my side of the issue. They obviously saw it otherwise. Id [sic] rather not fight it out with them in public. I had that option and I passed. So I’m still passing.”

While it is unclear whether Brunner was attempting to justify his conduct, he agreed to the discipline. He further agreed to the findings of fact which include the victims were unaware of the plea agreement. Much like defendants work plea bargains to mitigate punishment, perhaps Brunner feared a greater discipline. A fully probated suspension gives him the opportunity to continue practicing law uninterrupted. It certainly could have been worse.

All-in-all, this is a lesson in change for the prosecutorial bar. No longer are complaints simply dismissed. No longer do prosecutors get a pass for their conduct. The Bar is getting serious and it’s time to restore integrity to the prosecutor’s role.


separator

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

/ 1 Comments

Sure, a prosecutor can choose to prosecute a case, but that doesn’t always mean he or she should.

Trace Cocaine Cases

Years ago, then Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos made the choice to decline prosecution of trace amounts of cocaine. This didn’t mean she approved or condoned cocaine possession. It didn’t mean cocaine cases were not prosecuted. It simply meant she chose to use her limited resources for more serious cases, cases involving more than just residue. Under her watch, trace amounts of cocaine meant residue left on a baggie or pipe; something that was may not even be seen, and certainly was not capable of being used, but could be tested for or seen through a microscope. While she was widely criticized by her opponent in the next election cycle for her position, it made sense and it freed up judicial resources and taxpayer money to focus on more serious crimes.

Since her defeat and the return of the prosecution of trace cases, we saw a large increase in these cases which necessitated the creation of a separate “state jail court” as we called it. This extra court had to be staffed and operated seven days a week just to handle these cases. This court had to be funded by the tax dollar. In this court, cases would languish on the docket, with defendants mostly sitting in jail unable to afford a bond. Defendants in this court were rarely offered treatment and simply moved on from the county jail to the state jail, eventually to return to Harris County and begin the cycle again.

Perhaps it is time once again to consider whether or not these cases should be prosecuted.

Interestingly, with that extra court tied up on such relatively small cases, we saw other courts becoming backlogged as well. This October, the state jail court was repurposed and became what we call “impact court.” Impact court is a trial court meant to ease the backlog of felony cases, many of which are sexual assaults, robberies, and murders. Certainly seems we should have focused resources on these cases all along and not worried so much about trace cases.

Small Marijuana Cases

Jeff McShan, spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told the Texas Tribune in June, misdemeanor courts are now a mess and are backlogged with more than 10,000 marijuana cases. To ease this logjam, the District Attorney created its First Change Intervention Program aimed at removing non-violent low-level marijuana cases from the courts.

Not only was this program designed to divert cases from the court, it also sought to easy jail overcrowding by diverting these non-violent citizens from the local jail.

The program, in terms of a participant’s completion has been largely successful; however, in terms of diversion the program has been less than stellar. Diverting only about 19% of the program’s participants from the jail and the courthouse, the program has made little impact on these valuable resources.

Perhaps it is time to rethink prosecution of these cases. The District Attorney could easily force a diversion in almost all these cases but chooses not to.

Assault / Domestic Disturbance

Here, you will notice i didn’t use the term domestic violence. Certainly, true violence whether domestic or otherwise, should not be tolerated. But here, I’m talking about disturbances that are routinely prosecuted despite the participants’ desire.

All too often we see cases where the police are called to a disturbance. Emotions are usually high as the police arrive and seek to determine what happened. Perhaps the two participants in the disturbance were upset. Perhaps they were arguing. Perhaps things got out of hand and one participant pushed the other back. Perhaps that push, meant to place distance between the two, resulted in one sustaining a red mark to her arm. That red mark is most often referred to as an injury and the other person is arrested, taken to jail, and prosecuted. Perhaps one party stretched or embellished in a moment of anger.

Now, should the “injured” party settle down and notify the prosecutor that things just got out of hand and she really doesn’t want her companion to be prosecuted, that case is immediately sent to the “family criminal law division” for follow-up and continued prosecution. In effect, the injured party is given no say in whether or not the prosecution goes forward.

Many of these incidents involve no real injury and no repeated violence. Yet, they are prosecuted.

Again, not that prosecutions of abuse should be ignored, but many of these instances do not amount to abuse. They are single instances of heated arguments.

Prosecutions, while great for business, must be taken with care and insight into the expenditure of valuable resources. Prosecution: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.


separator