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A Fifth Circuit Opinion Shows Why People Would Want to Take Every Case To Trial, Even Though It’s a Really Bad Idea

The federal criminal justice system runs on pleas. If every person charged with a crime demanded that the courts give them the attention that the Constitution guarantees them, United States Attorney’s Offices wouldn’t be able to prosecute as many people as they do, and federal district courts would grind to a halt.

In the New York Times this week, Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University – who wrote The New Jim Crow, arguing that our criminal justice policy is, in essence, a continuation of America’s legacy of not being so awesome about issues of race – wrote a piece arguing that criminal defense lawyers should band together and insist that all our clients go to trial to crash the system.

1226064_prison_cells_2.jpgThe Michelle Alexander piece has generated all kinds of attention, from geeky to professional.

I’m not unsympathetic to this view. Mandatory minimums drive too many clients to give up their rights too easily. Federal criminal practice should be about more than pleas, cooperation, and sentencing. And I think that just about any person who has handled more than two criminal cases had fantasized about the system-wide chaos that would ensue if we organized people accused of crimes.

But, like Brian Tannenbaum says, it’s never going to happen. A criminal defense lawyer has to look out for each client, in each case. We’re not doing systematic reform – we’re doing individual representation.

If you want to reform the system, work for the ACLU or be a law professor. If you’re practicing law, you should help individual people with individual legal problems. The faults of the system are a secondary concern (which doesn’t mean that you won’t think about them while failing to sleep at 3 in the morning – just that your job isn’t to change them, except as you need to in the course of representing your client).

The problems with our system of federal factory justice, highlighted in Professor Alexander’s work, are serious ones though. And the Fifth Circuit’s recent opinion in United States v. Carreon-Ibarra highlights.

Mr. Carreon-Ibarra pled guilty to a count in an indictment that charged him with using a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking offense. It was charged under 18 U.S.C. 924(c).

At the plea hearing, he was told that the charge carried a mandatory minimum of 5 years.

As it happened, the gun in question was a machinegun. So his mandatory minimum was, in fact, 30 years.

The presentence report, prepared by the Probation Office, reported that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra’s mandatory minimum was 30 years.

Mr. Carreon-Ibarra’s counsel objected. The lawyer objected to the presentence report, and objected to the district court at the sentencing hearing.

The judge, appreciative of the fact that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra had been told he faced only a five-year mandatory minimum at the plea hearing, told Mr. Carreon-Ibarra that he considered him subject to only a five-year mandatory minimum. The court said it had the power to give him as little as five years on this count.

The district court them imposed a forty year sentence.

The problem arose, though, when the district court issued its judgment. In the written judgment that followed the hearing, the court said that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra pled guilty to the machinegun offense, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of thirty years.

Clearly, the district court didn’t read it’s own judgment in light of its statements at sentencing.

The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra’s plea was deficient because he wasn’t accurately told what the mandatory minimum would be.

How does this happen? How does a smart judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate pay this little attention to documents that send a man to prison for forty years?

It happens because there are too many federal criminal cases that have become too routine for courts to give the attention that these cases need.

And that’s why people who are going through the criminal justice system are angry.

They can feel that their cases don’t get deep attention from the courts or the prosecutors. People know when they’ve been turned into file numbers or claims. Claims that send them to prison for massive amounts of time. People resent how little the most important case in their lives matters to the people who make decisions about them.

It makes people want to do crazy things to tear the system down.

Even though that would be a bad idea.