Sunday, July 02, 2017

5th Circuit adds injury to insult for innocent victims of police coercion

When the Texas Legislature "enhanced" penalties for already-enhanced offenses of assaulting a peace officer, Grits warned that the change in the law would increase pressure on innocent defendants to plead guilty to false charges, as happened to Carlos Flores in San Antonio.

Now, another example arises out of Brownsville where a defendant, George Alvarez, pled guilty to false charges of assaulting a jailer to avoid the risk of a much longer sentence at trial. Later, it was discovered that the jailer assaulted Mr. Alvarez, not the other way around. Nobody from the government disclosed evidence to the defense of the jailer's misconduct, so Mr. Alvarez accepted a plea bargain which, following an unsuccessful probation stint, resulted in an 8-year prison sentence. When the evidence was later revealed, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared him "actually innocent."

George Alvarez sued upon his exoneration and a federal jury awarded him $2 million. But a 3-judge panel from the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their verdict, declaring in a pique of sophistry that, because he pled guilty, the government had no constitutional duty under Brady v. Maryland to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.

In other words: Because the government successfully lied to the defense and to the courts and coerced an innocent defendant into pleading guilty to false charges, the 5th Circuit says they just get away with it and can't be held responsible for the fraud perpetrated on the defendant and the convicting court. That seems ripe for appeal to the US Supreme Court, or at least an en banc ruling from the full 5th Circuit.

This example demonstrates why HB 2908, creating new, super-enhancements for assaulting police officers, will inevitably increase pressure on defendants like Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Flores to accept false convictions and plea guilty to things they did not do. After all, they've been successfully framed! At that point, pleading guilty to false charges may be the only way they can avoid additional decades in prison on top of their beatings or other civil rights violations they may have already undergone.

And now, when defendants make that lamentable but inevitably rational decision to plea, they will simultaneously give up their right to seek redress in federal court for the wrong done to them, if this reprehensible ruling is allowed to stand.

To recap: Not only did most of the major reform bills aimed at preventing police misconduct fail this year at the Texas Legislature, one of the biggest hammers used to coerce guilty pleas from innocent defendants victimized by misconduct was doubled in size. Then the 5th Circuit said that, when the state succeeds in coercing defendants in that fashion, they can avoid liability entirely for framing an innocent defendant.

What a terrible run for victims of police misconduct in Texas these last couple of months. The repercussions will be felt for years to come.


Anonymous said...

And if you don't like it, that means you hate America, and should move to Russia !

Anonymous said...

If Russia's going to pick our presidents, why do we need to move?

Steven Michael Seys said...

If you don't like America move to Texas. Russia is too far and Texas has more vigorous oppression.

Anonymous said...

...when they get it right.

Anonymous said...

Also excellent scholarship on this topic which holds out hope for a Supreme Court correction:

Here is the conclusion:

Given the importance of the rights at stake, the Supreme Court should address the viability of post-guilty plea exculpatory Brady claims. Almost all criminal convictions are the result of guilty pleas, and yet while some defendants are provided with evidence establishing their factual innocence before they enter a plea, others must plea bargain without the benefit of that evidence. The Supreme Court recently made substantial progress in protecting defendants’ constitutional rights by recognizing the right to effective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining. In the interests of fairness, accurate convictions, and a just criminal process, the Supreme Court should continue that trend by requiring the disclosure of exculpatory Brady evidence during plea bargaining and holding that the failure to do so renders a guilty plea invalid.

Steve said...

When someone withholds exculpatory evidence of actual innocence, they should be disbarred - no questions asked, just flat disbarred.

Jennifer Laurin said...

It's a terrible decision, and you're quite right about the interplay with sentencing enhancements. I'd be very nervous about the current Supreme Court (much less the one that might exist after a near-term retirement) weighing in to "clarify" Ruiz.

rozmataz said...

Would clothing of the injured party who was shot while pointing a gun at defendant be exculpatory evidence? Defendant claimed the injured party had fired at him first? The defendant's trial attorney never asked for the clothes. Appeals attorney wants to test the clothes for gunshot residue. The cops say clothes were given to the injured party's mother. Injured party died of his wound.

Anonymous said...

Rozmataz, why didn't the original defense council have the shirt tested? Did the cops test it?

rozmataz said...

Our appeal alleges inadequate representation by trial counsel. As far as I know the shirt wasn't tested. We have filed in federal court, asking that the shirt be tested, and the state of Texas' response alleges the shirt was given to the mother of the dead man.