Shortly before his death, the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi told his top attorneys that he viewed prosecutors overcharging cases as the biggest issue facing the criminal justice system today.
More than a month later, newly appointed Public Defender Manohar Raju is building on the work of his predecessor, urging state lawmakers to support a bill that aims to diminish the practice.
In California and beyond, district attorneys are known to file as many charges as possible against a defendant to ensure that a case ends in a favorable plea bargain for the prosecution.
Critics argue that the practice results in wrongful convictions, with defendants choosing to plead guilty to charges in exchange for shorter sentences than they might face at trial.
“Folks who feel they are not guilty across the state are pleading guilty day in and day out,” Raju said Tuesday. “They are doing that because they fear crushing sentences and they fear multiple serious convictions.”
“The risk is simply too high,” Raju continued. “It’s unfair, it’s morally wrong and it’s a perversion of the fundamental pillars of our system that are the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Assembly Bill 1636, from Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, seeks to address the issue by allowing judges to dismiss felony charges the first time a defendant appears in court if prosecutors cannot prove probable cause.
While defendants have the option to request a probable cause determination be made at arraignment in misdemeanor cases, a judge does not decide whether to dismiss felony charges based on probable cause until preliminary hearing.
Despite defendants having a right to a preliminary hearing within 10 court days, the hearings are typically delayed until much later as attorneys on both sides need time to prepare.
All the while, defendants are held in jail on potentially unfounded charges that could have implications on whether they can make bail.
“Even if the prelim is done as quickly as possible, which is two weeks, in that time someone can lose their job, [Child Protective Services] could become involved, housing could be lost,” Raju said.
Raju was speaking at the Assembly Public Safety Committee alongside Bonta and Esteban Nunez of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. The committee passed the bill on Tuesday evening.
“This is an important step in addressing the problem of criminal overcharging which leads to unnecessary deprivation of liberty, pressured guilty pleas and harmful loss of jobs, homes, and, even, one’s children,” Bonta said on Twitter.
At the hearing, Bonta said Adachi came to him with the idea for the bill.
The bill is opposed by the California District Attorneys Association and the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
“This bill is unnecessary, duplicative of other long established safe guards and would cause an expensive and unreasonable burden on the judicial system,” Larry Morse of the CDAA said at the committee hearing.
Besides the probable cause determination made at preliminary hearing, there are two other layers in which the determination is made. Police make arrests based on probable cause, and under a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, judges across California also make the determination within 48 hours.
But according to the Public Defender’s Office, no attorneys are present when judges make the initial determination. Furthermore, judges are deciding within 48 hours whether there is probable cause to hold a person in jail, not whether an individual charge should be dismissed.
Still, Morse argued that already busy judges having to review case files at arraignment would be “unworkable,” even though the bill would only have judges review paperwork in the case and not listen to witnesses, as is done during preliminary hearings.
“This will dramatically snarl the court system by requiring high-volume arraignment judges to review declarations, police reports or other records to justify charges in the complaint,” Morse said.
Morse also argued that police and prosecutors need the 10 days provided before a preliminary hearing to continue investigating cases before demonstrating probable cause to a judge. He said electronic police reports are often not available or completed as early as arraignment.