Bill Baumbach at the Collin County Observer describes a case from his neck of the woods where prosecutors have done precisely that, refusing to accept a guilty plea to insist that the defendant be taken to trial instead. Texas 5th Court of Appeals said prosecutors are not required to accept a guilty plea. Baumbach writes:
Picture this -- a man is arrested for let's say burglary and is brought before a judge who asks him if he understands the charges. "Yes, your honor and I want to plead guilty", replies the accused.
But then the District Attorney jumps up with, "We object. The people demand a jury trial".
"But I'm guilty. I did it and I'll accept my sentence.", replies the accused. "No matter, the State demands a jury trial, and we will have one", the prosecutor declares.
In Texas and especially in Collin County this actually happens. The judge is then forced to send out jury summons to 100 or more citizens, who take time off of work to come to court. A jury is chosen, sworn in and seated. The man is brought back into court and once again says, "your honor, I plead guilty, and I ask that you, the judge, set punishment." The Jury is sent home, and the man sentenced.
Not a very efficient way to run a court, is it?
Last week, in a Collin County case, the Texas 5th Court of Appeals overturned a visiting judge who refused to allow the DA to force a jury trial, when the defendant asked to plead guilty.
In an excellent earlier post, Baumbach suggested an array of possible motives for why prosecutors might do such thing (and perhaps prosecutors reading this blog can suggest others he missed). The judge believed the motive was forum shopping so a different judge would sentence the defendant:
There are several possible reasons. One is exactly what Judge McCraw was charging. That the District Attorney wants to control which judge sets punishment. In Blackburn's case, Judge McCraw, after accepting the guilty pleas, would then set a date for a punishment hearing. The judge at that punishment hearing, and the one who would set punishment, would be Judge Jill Willis. (A jury trial date had already been set - the trial would have been heard by the visiting judge).
So McCraw was accusing the DA of not wanting Judge Willis to determine the punishment. And he was accusing the DA's office of wasting county money, and jurors' time to do so.
The Collin County Observer has talked with several local defense attorneys. They all told the Observer they believe that the Collin County District Attorney does not want certain judges to set punishment. One of those judges is the newly appointed Judge Willis.
Another possible reason for the DA to refuse to permit a bench trial is rooted in the policies of the Collin County District Attorney's office. Sources who know the system have told the Observer that in this county, a prosecutor's performance is rated primarily by one metric -- the percentage of jury trials resulting in a guilty verdict. Any prosecutor who does not maintain at least a passing average, will not be employed by the county for long. Promotions and raises are all largely based on this win percentage of jury trials.
Prosecutors therefore have an incentive to plea bargain the difficult to prove cases and to take to a jury the slam dunk, easy cases -- even if the trial is just a 'sham'.
Earlier this year, Harris County floated an idea that would be another reason for the State to object to a jury trial waiver - they wanted new, young prosecutors to get more trial experience. They wanted to force defendants to go before a jury so that the States attorney could practice on easy cases. That idea was finally shot down after a howl of protests from the defense bar.
In the Blackburn case, Judge McCraw made his opinion clear. At one point he told Mr. Rolater, "I think we ought to clarify it for the appellate court. As I say, if they want to be involved in forum shopping, fine. Let them do it.... I think the Constitution of the United States allows an individual to enter a plea to the duly appointed judge. That's all I've attempted to do here."
I can't think of many reasons beyond those to explain this particular exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and even they're slim reeds to justify such a pointless, extravagant waste of jurors' time, not to mention court and jail resources. The DA should plead the cases before the judges elected to hear them, not manipulate the process to get the judge they want, nor waste the court's time in search of notches on trial lawyers' belt or training baby prosecutors.
I'm sure nobody keeps statistics on how often prosecutors refuse guilty pleas to the charges grand juries bring, but if the courts find no legal requirement that prosecutors accept a guilty plea, perhaps the Legislature should create one.
MORE: See a related string from the user forum of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association on the question of forcing jury trials when a defendant has pled guilty to all charges. Thanks to Jaime Spencer for dredging it up.