Michael Calhoun is a 61-year-old man facing nearly a decade behind bars. Throughout his life, he has never been arrested on any violent charges. His crime: he sold drugs worth $ 20.
However, being caged for those nine years and change is a privilegesays the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO), which has offered Calhoun that sentence in the form of a plea deal. If you exercise your legal right to trial, you have been threatened with “substantially harsher” punishment, a tactic used to intimidate criminal suspects into giving up their opportunity to do justice.
That’s illegal, says a new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against Allister Adel, the Maricopa County Attorney.
Calhoun, a plaintiff living in Phoenix, was referred to the Early Disposition Court (EDC), a subset of the judiciary designed to help get low-level offenders off the record. Established in the late 1990s, it is purported to be an “innovative approach to case processing to alleviate the backlog of trials in the Criminal Division and respond to the desire of the criminal community. offer treatment to drug offenders ” according to the local government. [Emphasis mine.]
Maricopa County offers them much more than treatment, the lawsuit says, imposing stratospheric prison terms on the suspects without a preliminary hearing and without the alleged offender having a chance to review the evidence against them. The Calhoun settlement and related agreements are accompanied by a warning:
For anyone who has had the dislike of watching today’s flood of true crime TV shows, the tactic is probably no surprise. But the MCAO, being more brazen than most local governments, has exposed the potential illegality of the approach, which amounts to blackmailing people into giving up their constitutional rights without benefit to the community. If prosecutors believed Calhoun needed to spend more time behind bars to protect society, they would have hunted him from the start. But that is not what is happening here.
“The Constitution states that everyone has the right to a jury trial in any criminal proceeding,” says Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute. “For the government, this is a problem, because a prosecution that culminates in a trial is costly, inconvenient and uncertain … The ability to induce a defendant to waive the right to a trial is a very attractive option, both because it saves money and time, but because it eliminates the uncertainty of a jury trial. “
The result: Prosecutors start by offering an already disproportionately high prison sentence, often racking up multiple charges for the same crime, effectively pressuring people to accept the fear of receiving an even more grotesque sentence. Thus, people like Calhoun end up looking at years and years in prison for victimless crimes, something that Maricopa County itself recognizes should be “diverted into a drug treatment program.” The ACLU’s lawsuit notes that, according to records obtained from the Maricopa County court in October 2018, only 8 percent of cases were diverted.
Also a plaintiff in the lawsuit is Levonta Barker, a man who was charged with two counts each of aggravated assault and kidnapping and offered seven and a half years in prison. The problem: He was innocent and was granted that plea deal before MCAO bothered to do an investigation, much less before allowing Barker to attend a probable cause hearing or discuss the evidence with his attorney. His attorney eventually pointed out that when Barker was arrested, he was wearing a different outfit than the perpetrator was described as wearing in police reports. The MCAO hadn’t verified those basics and Barker spent a month in jail for it.
Jury trials are indeed expensive matters, sometimes reaching six figures. Therefore, plea agreements are considered a cost savings. Apply that logic in reverse, and the government would only seek lawsuits for offenders who it truly believes pose a real threat to the community. By his own admission, Calhoun would not qualify.
It could also help remind the government of what is worth and what is not. In October 2019, New Orleans prosecutors sought to assemble a jury to consider a felony marijuana charge. They I could not find six people who would even please them. As it stands today, maybe Maricopa County can find those jurors. Maybe it won’t always be like this.