Senate Being rich or influencial in the judicial system

Discussion in 'Archive: The Senate Floor' started by Lowbacca_1977, Dec 12, 2013.

  1. Lowbacca_1977 Force Ghost

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    Triggered by a recent story, there seems to be a common theme in media coverage that is rich or influential people (either directly, or through their family ties) getting away with crimes, sometimes as high as murder. In LA, this is most often associated with celebrities that have not been found guilty, not faced charges, or gotten lighter charges than people would expect, ranging from OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, and Robert Blake on serious accusations, to less severe infractions like driving under the influence or reckless driving, which seems to have been too many celebrities to keep track of.

    However, the idea goes far beyond the scope of celebrity, and two more recent stories seem to cover this. In one case, a man was involved in a hit and run when he hit a bicycle. In that case, rather than facing a felony charge, he faced two misdemeanors, and the DA expressed sympathy that Marty Erzinger was in fear of losing his job as a hedge fund manager after he struck someone with his car and drove off. In this case, the effect a felony would have on someone in such a job was a factor to be concerned with.

    A story with far more prominence is a recent one from Texas. A 16-year-old driving a pick-up truck while at three times the legal limit hit and killed 4 pedestrians. He has been sentenced to probation, but nothing more severe, and this has been met with a great deal of outrage, especially as the judge appears to be agreeing with the defense that the driver was, himself a victim. As a victim of 'affluenza' because he was able to get away with everything, so he didn't have a grasp of any consequences he might have to face for his actions, and so this would impact him knowing he shouldn't be doing what he was doing. That idea is getting a lot of backlash for excusing his behavior.

    There's a few top questions about this topic, to me. Firstly, are people that are financially-well off or well connected statistically more likely to be found not guilty or get a lesser sentence, or are these stories just more likely to be covered because their high positions make the stories sell much better specifically because people get upset about it?
    Secondly, is this from their ability to afford better counsel, or is this an actual action by the judicial system to treat them better? Finally, if this is a problem, what are the best ways to go about handling it, either to treat them more strictly, or to give everyone the same sorts of benefits in a court?
    Questions can be approached in any order, or feel free to go for a related aspect I didn't mention if there's other aspects to consider I didn't think of.
    Last edited by Lowbacca_1977, Dec 12, 2013
  2. Mr44 VIP

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    While I don't agree with the concept of "affluenza," I think, IIRC, that this wasn't an actual legal concept such as being found "legally insane," but rather that the defense attorney brought this up during the closing arguments, which is a time that either attorney can pretty much bring up anything as long as it doesn't cross a legal line.

    What one has to look at is how similar 16 year olds have been sentenced in this jurisdiction. The trend in criminal justice/courts seems to be to focus on the juvenile aspect first from the standpoint of brain development, cognitive function, etc... Regardless of this kid's social standing, what would be an appropriate sentence? To lock a 16 year old up for 20 years? How does intent play into things?

    I think the easy answers to your questions are that they all represent a little bit of both. Certainly, money buys better, well...everything, including legal defense. But it's also a matter of anything outside of the norm also sells news. If this was just an average 25 year old who received 4 years for this, it wouldn't even get mentioned either.
  3. DarthBoba Manager Emeritus

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    I'd shy away from sending a sixteen-year-old to prison for 20 years, personally. Yeah, what he did was horrible and his parents/himself should be paying the deceased's family for the rest of their lives or so, but a person getting out of prison at 36 for a felony murder is just as dead societally as the people he killed. Nobody's going to hire him, he may well be broke from civil suits, and he's literally not going to be able to relate to other people except in the violence-dominated culture of US prison.

    As for OJ/etc getting out of crimes due to being rich-well, yes, you're likely to go free when the DA is incredibly incompetent and you have a legal dream team of five+ lawyers. He's a good example for how the rich do go to prison-he's currently in prison for robbery, iirc, and for a long period of time.
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  4. LostOnHoth Chosen One

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    That 'affluenza' story even the made papers here. I've never practised in criminal law but I know that sentencing is always controversial because of the discretionary nature of it - the sentencing judge is charged with the exercise of judicial discretion and so that brings into play all manner of defence submissions. Due to the discretionary framework you end up with inconsistency or at least the perception of inconsistency because on the surface it appears that like offences have different sentencing outcomes. But that ignores the many factors the sentencing judge must take into consideration and also that there may be sentencing guidelines at play.

    Personally, I'd rather there be outrage at "soft sentences" than having to to be subject to a mandatory sentencing regime where the judge has no exercise of judicial discretion.

    In terms of the OP, I echo the points already raised that rich and influential people are generally better served in the judicial system than poor and common people - there is an old legal adage "innocent until proven broke" but that is actually true. A good defence team running a two week trial would cost you in excess of $500,000 and that wouldn't include any sentencing hearings and submissions if you were found guilty or any appeal.
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  5. Mr44 VIP

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    But see, that's also why the sensational aspect of media in general has to be taken into account, especially if that single aspect made the papers across the pond.

    The reality was that the offender in the case was only 16. He would have gotten a similar sentence under juvenile law that was similar, with or without the "affluenza" defense. In fact, under juvenile law accepted by most states, the focus is on rehabilitation, not incarceration, and if any prison time was issued, he would have gotten 2 years at most.

    This kid's 10 year probation sentence isn't outside the norm at all for a juvenile crime without intent, so I'm not sure how much the defense actually played a role in it, besides the initial reaction of "Wha! This kids lawyer brought that up during the trial!?!"
  6. Lowbacca_1977 Force Ghost

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    Jun 28, 2006
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    I think there's a huge difference between getting a short sentence and getting NO time, however.

    If anyone can find any sentencing statistics, I'd love to see it, as it is, I tried to find court cases in the US where teenage drivers were at fault for someone dying, usually due to alcohol. (I had trouble finding these, and couldn't find any where 4 were killed, I don't think)
    Here's the basic info, and the sentences, ages are for accident if possible:
    18 year old in Colorado killed 1 injured another while drunk, 12 year sentence suspended on condition of completion of 4 years in Youthful Offender System
    16 year old in California killed 1 while drunk, sentenced to 15 years
    19 year old in Washington (Federal trial) killed 2 while drunk, sentenced to 26 months
    17 year old in Illinois killed 1, injured another while drunk, sentenced to 5 years
    17 year old in California killed 1 injured 3 while drunk, sentenced to 2 years
    17 year old in Missouri killed 1 while texting, sentenced to 3.5 years after failing to follow parole requirements (leniency was asked for by victims family in first sentence)

    I'll note that while I was searching for sentencing, I never required that sentence to be jail time, so I didn't bias the search in that way. From the best that I can find, the norm in these situations is some amount of incarceration and these are all situations where only 1-2 people were killed. In this case, 4 were killed and 2 more critically injured, and yet it's lighter in sentence than most of what I can find.

    Barring statistics, it seems like the preponderance of evidence I can find shows that the normal situation where a teenager kills people while driving under the influence is some time in jail, not a long sentence usually, but at least a year in jail of some fashion. He, however, got no jail time.
    Last edited by Lowbacca_1977, Dec 15, 2013
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  7. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    Personally I think the kid should have gotten 25 years probation and a ten year suspension if he screws up again. Oh and the kid should now be rearrested and charged with a hate crime. He used his wealth to kill everyone else and didn't care that a poor person was driving. And the parents should be charged with a crime for facilitating the whole thing. They allowed him to violate the law and drive a truck at 13. Get a motorcycle at an earlier age.
  8. LostOnHoth Chosen One

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    Mr44 - I'd say that the "affuenza" defence was merely invoked to ensure that the attorney could not be sued by his client later. Generally in a sentencing hearing you would want to just throw everything in there and leave it to the judge to filter through the relevent matters, it's not like you have a prosecutor objecting to what you say. Given the litigious environment in the US and cost of PI insurance I don't blame the attorney for going beyond what might be considered the 'norm' in terms of raising points in mitigation of a custodial sentence.

    Lowie - the insonsistency you see there is an illustration of the point I raised in my previous post, that is, the exercise of judicial discretion, the quality of defence counsel and the circumstances of the case can all result in different sentencing outcomes for what appears to be a similar offence. Different sentencing guidelines may also apply which might give an different outcome in each jurisdiction. For example, the attorney for the Texas kid argued that the kid didn't really know what he was doing was wrong whereas that argument would be difficult to maintain in the case ofthe 16 year old California kid as the evidence shows that he was urged not to drive and that others refused to drive with him. Then there is the issue of any other driving offences, the quality of supporting references, et etc etc.
  9. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    The problem with that defence that he didn't know right from wrong was he was with a group of friends. That in itself constitutes knowing right from wrong. Especially stealing from Walmart.

    Here is an important question, if a child is over the age of 18 and still on their parents health and car insurance and lives with them at home does that constitute parental responsibility even past the age of 18?
  10. DarthBoba Manager Emeritus

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    No. Age of consent/adulthood is still 18 regardless of those.
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  11. Saintheart Chosen One

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    So far as Australian sentencing law is concerned, mainly because I practiced in it, it varies a little from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general community outrage on light sentences is the product of dimwitted public ignorance about what a prison term actually means and a media that knows how to milk that ignorance.

    Australian sentencing legislation, particularly for young people, invariably emphasises that imprisonment is a sanction of last resort. This does not mean you can never imprison, anymore than the maximum sentence for a crime cannot be invoked because one can always imagine a "worse" murder/robbery/whatever than the one being sentenced upon. But it does mean that courts will try not to imprison if they possibly can. The general community, and indeed the conservative community in particular, have very little idea exactly what a blow it is to imprison a person -- particularly a young person -- for a substantial period of time. Invariably a long prison term guarantees the person will be back there again shortly after they are released. It is not as simple as good old Shawshank Redemption "institutionalisation" -- though I did see, once, in my career a case of precisely that kind -- but just as pernicious.

    A substantial prison term will literally take you out of society for X number of years. Completely. Gilded as the cage may be seen as, it's still a cage. You frequently do not have an identity in prison other than being referred to by your last name. You have literally no liberty and bound to orders for the entirety of your stay. You will spend long, long hours of your days in a cell smaller than probably the most dingy dorm room you could ever imagine at university. And you will not have contact with your outside family or friends without it being heavily monitored and curtailed. You don't understand what that is, what that does to a person, until you see it for yourself or go through it for yourself. Let alone the other stereotypical concerns about having your anus violated or losing teeth (or both) if you don't make friends fast. You have to suppress your very personality in many cases.

    And that's before you get to the societal and economic damage otherwise caused. For a young person, those are years they can never get back, any more than a woman who leaves the workforce to have children is ever going to get those earning years back. If young men (and it is, overwhelmingly, young men who wind up behind bars) have children, they are not available either to support their children or their family. Their children suffer the stigma of having a father in prison, as does the partner, assuming they stay with the father, which in itself perpetuates the cycle since fathers in prison tend to have children who wind up going in the same direction. It is a massive hit to their life, so much so that it is almost a settled principle at sentencing that the actual punishment a sentence of imprisonment imposes is not linear as the term rises, but geometric. It is very, very simple to impose a disproportionate sentence for a given crime when you consider what a prison term really does to the person who has to endure it. Like I said, you probably can have no sense or experience of this unless you've seen a client go into prison and see what's left of that client when they come back out. Pithy aphorisms to "take your licks" or "go and sin no more" appear pretty threadbare when you deal with the human experience, the real people, that are the result of long prison terms.

    In sentencing a judge has to weigh all of those factors against the need for punishment/retribution, which is the other side of the sentencing balance. It is not a simple task. In fact many judges speak of it as indeed the hardest task they ever perform on the bench, because being thinking human beings they are faced with the eternal and endless dilemna of whether it is proper in a given case to answer the destruction of a victim's life with the destruction of that of the perpetrator. Discrepancies in sentencing are largely due to individual circumstances, individual judges, and individual counsel (in roughly that order of precedence.) The "tariffs" are not generally that hard to ascertain, especially in Australia; by the time I'd racked up three or four years in criminal law I could give you a pretty good estimate of how long you'd serve for a given offence with given antecedents, regardless of whether you drew a legal aid lawyer or a top-flight QC.

    But as I said the general public only sees the offence and the seemingly-tiny term that follows from it, because that's all the media lets them see. It's the best media con game in town, a grotesque counterpart to the old saying "If it bleeds, it leads." In recent times I once heard a government publicist report from a journalist friend that there are now only two types of stories that go into a newspaper: "Isn't it great" or "Isn't it horrible." Sentencing cases are invariably bunnies that wind up primed for placement in the second category.
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  12. Jedi Merkurian Episode VII Thread-Reaper

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    Saintheart, you raise some very valid points about the corrosive effects that the so-called corrective system has on a person. I don't dispute it, I don't deny it. At all. Particularly your point that " it is almost a settled principle at sentencing that the actual punishment a sentence of imprisonment imposes is not linear as the term rises, but geometric."

    With that in mind, consider, at least in the U.S., the enormous disparity in results in our system based on ethnicity, which is connected to socio-economic status. Whether incarceration rates for drug offenses, or sentencing severity for the the same crimes, everything you say applies that much moreso to those unable to afford a lawyer able to take best advantage of our criminal justice laws.
  13. Saintheart Chosen One

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    We have a similar debate on in Australia since Aboriginal offenders are disproportionately represented in prison populations. As in, five percent of the general population, but forty or higher percent of the prison population or so. On the other hand, it's just as important not to lose sight of the word "offenders" in that as the "Aboriginal" part. There is a lot of chicken-and-egg in this scenario. To some extent the battle was lost the first time a son followed his father into the prison system. Unwinding the Gordian Knot is a tremendously complex issue, and throwing money at it has proven rather less pragmatic a solution than Alexander's sword was to the Knot.

    On the other hand, legal aid, or public defender offices, tend to be poorly funded across the board in Western countries. One of the few exceptions seems to have been the UK, where Geoffrey Robertson -- a barrister, observing QCs of his time -- speaks regularly of trials being funded on legal aid. Michael Moore, idiot demagogue that he is, made a similar point in Stupid White Americans if I remember right: he ranted that public defenders are more inclined to sell out, er, plead out, their clients because of the time and expense a trial involves, not to mention the brutally longer prison sentence you get if you take a matter to trial rather than plead it. The death penalty horribly exacerbates those issues, not that given the US's stance on firearms that its stance on state-sanctioned murder terribly surprises me.
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  14. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    if your an innocent man you have a lot better chance of getting off with a death sentence then with a life sentence. No one cares if you get life. But the rich lawyers who make money doing accidents and high profile stuff love to get their newbies into a death penalty appeal cause it makes them look as if they are doing good for society by getting an innocent man off the gallows.

    If that kid was poor he would have been charged with being an adult and sentenced as such. But his parents with good lawyers argued for juvie and won.
  15. LostOnHoth Chosen One

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    I think you'll find that socio-economic status is not linked to the legal age of majority. It's 18 whether you are rich or poor. Also, being an adult is not of itself a crime, so I'm not sure being charged with being an adult would stand up in court.
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  16. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    no its not, in cases of murder they can argue in fact they have to argue before a case is brought to family court or with him charged as an adult. The state can say I want him charged as an adult and then the have a trial to determine if he is eligible.
  17. LostOnHoth Chosen One

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    Yes it is. I'm aware that juveniles can be charged as adults for certain crimes but this is not linked to their socio-economic status it is linked to other factors.
  18. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    The parents had money and they used to money to argue that the kid should be tried as a juvie. If he was poor the public defender might give a chance at it but most likely not.
  19. LostOnHoth Chosen One

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    Yes I understand the argument but I think it is too simplistic because the US has a range of transfer laws depending on which state you are in. In some cases, the offence itself triggers an automatic transfer and so it does not matter how much money you have. In other states the transfer is at the discretion of the judge but the threshold is low based upon the offence. In every case where the transfer is discretionary the onus is on the prosecutor and so the motion is filed by the prosecutor and it is heard before the judge. The public defender, if there is one, would attend as a matter of course. This is one area of law where the outcome doesn't depend on the socio-economic status of the accused imho.
  20. Saintheart Chosen One

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    Probably getting a little off the topic here, but are you saying that --
    (a) getting an innocent man off the gallows isn't good for society
    (b) finding a reason to prevent the state from murdering a man isn't good for society
    (c) assuming that a death penalty appeal is a net loss in financial terms to the law firm that supports it pro bono or on the pittance called legal aid pay rates, that lawyers working for free or for tiny amounts for clients who otherwise wouldn't be able to pay isn't good for society
    (d) all of the above
    (e) none of the above

    ?
  21. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    What I am saying is we have death penalty foes who will drop everything to get a man off the death sentence. They don't care what he did. If he innocent he is better off cause some rich lawyer who is using his newbie lawyers he hired out of school and interns to get the innocent man off of death row and to freedom. If you get a life sentence you gotta pray some one who loves you can convince a rich lawyer that they are innocent and to take up the cause. But no one wants to do anything cause it doesn't garner support like getting an innocent man off of death row. This is reality. Not some sort of fancy lie legal scholars tell themselves when it comes to innocent man being found guilty. You know you get a different view in life of the Justice system when you get railroaded. Trust me on that I speak from experience. BTW don't believe me about the newbie lawyer thing, just ask Dani. She will tell you the truth.
    Last edited by beezel26, Dec 22, 2013
  22. Lowbacca_1977 Force Ghost

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    This does bring up one interesting point, in that I'd be really interested to see if there's been any studies looking at if charging minors as adults (a policy that I object fully anyway as a double standard) in some crimes has any bias based off of socioeconomic background (or race and gender, for that matter). I've never heard the point discussed, but I'd love to see a study that examines it.
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  23. Saintheart Chosen One

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    First up, I think it's entirely right you have death penalty "foes" who will drop everything to get a man off the death sentence. A death penalty is a brutal, stupid, pointless practice that does nothing to lower the crime rate appreciably and allows a fallible court system to make a truly irreversible mistake. The simple reason why death penalty cases deserve every resource thrown at them to prevent them dying is because you can't fix a court's mistake after the person is dead. With a life sentence you literally have a lifetime to prove your innocence. And don't tell me about getting railroaded by the justice system. I've seen plenty of clients who have had that happen to them.

    Newbie lawyers assigned to death penalty appeal cases? That's fantastic. There should be more of it. If anything is going to shock a callow 24 year old out of his law school, MTV-derived cocoon existence, if anything is going to make him check his work and work damn hard to make sure he gets it right, it's the prospect of literally holding a man's life in his hands.
    Last edited by Saintheart, Dec 22, 2013
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  24. beezel26 Force Ghost

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    Not really its so they understand the idea that to make the justice system work in their favor they have to learn to exploit every loophole possible. If they can't get a man off of death row then apparently they are not a good lawyer.
  25. Saintheart Chosen One

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    The death penalty, and the grotesque panoply that surrounds it, is an unjust system. It spits in the face of every principle,every instinct of human rights clung to by mankind on this Earth. If there is a God, I can think of few more repulsive fumes rising to his heaven, than that a nation which purports to honour human rights and freedom, which proclaims notice to the world "Give me your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free," should countenance the death penalty. Anyone with knuckles clean of dirt dragging on them understands that. The rest of the world understands that, absent, of course, that handful of dictators and warlords who share the US's thirst for the death penalty but not its hypocrisy.

    If the only way of protest, of defeating an unjust system, is by spiriting people through loopholes in the unjust law that supports that system, then there is honour in doing so. As much honour as protesting that system with placard in hand, and more honour than resorting to violence to protest the pinnacle of thoughtless, impassive violence which is the death penalty. Those lawyers smuggling men, women and children through those loopholes do not stand alone. Their forebears smuggled men, women and children across state lines and into Canada and Mexico when a man was still a chattel. Their kinsmen spoke Polish, French, and carried men, women and children across national borders who otherwise would have worn yellow stars on their chests and tattooed numbers on their wrists.

    If by dint of apathy alone a lawyer cannot get a man off death row, knowing all that, then they certainly are not a good lawyer. Not to mention that if you can't do a good job when a man's life is on the line, what use will you be advocating for his money? For his right to a patch of land? For his right to vote?

    You also fundamentally misunderstand a lawyer's duties, leaving aside the honourable course of protest that every lawyer fighting death penalty appeal cases should take -- the course of maximum resistance, of not allowing a single jot of the law to be ignored or overridden in the gallop to the executioner's chair.