March 9, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“My dental office was recently burglarized by two men who were literally caught inside looking for drugs and money when the police arrived. Despite this, at their arraignment, their attorney had them enter a not-guilty plea when the judge read off the charges. I was sitting there in court and heard it all, shaking my head in disbelief.
“Will you please explain for me, just how a lawyer, when faced with obvious evidence of a client’s guilt, can still stand up there and have the guy say, “Not guilty”! To me this is a slap in the face of Justice itself, but what do I know, as I am just a dentist, not a lawyer. I read your column in the Eureka Times Standard and appreciate the public service that you and the paper are doing. Thanks, Dr. Dave.”
“Dr. Dave’s” question is a good one, and you would be surprised how often we hear it asked — sometimes by lawyers who only practice civil law. It’s one of those situations where common sense seems to not apply, until a deeper look is taken at the “How do you plead?” moments of a criminal case.
For an analysis of this sometimes confusing subject, I turned to criminal defense attorney Greg Rael of Eureka. Greg understands my reader’s frustration.
“The better way of looking at this early stage of a criminal case is to think of the “not guilty” plea as a kind of legal shorthand. The plea “not guilty” should be considered as really meaning: I have not been found guilty. On my lawyer’s advice I am entering a not-guilty plea in order to protect my rights under the laws of our state and the Constitution. My Lawyer will study the formal charges and police reports and conduct any investigation he deems necessary. After doing this, my lawyer will help me decide if I should go to trial or resolve the case in some other way.”
I asked Greg if he felt the average person, such as my dentist reader, is justified in being a bit angry when someone caught in the act of committing a crime stands up and says, “Not guilty!”
“That’s understandable,” he replied. “Lawyers and judges understand that a Not Guilty plea at the arraignment, especially where guilt appears obvious, makes some people think the defendant is thumbing his nose at the public. But the plea is not designed as a legal assertion of innocence. In fact a defendant who pleads Not Guilty may be guilty or innocent. The plea, which can always be changed later, is the equivalent of saying, ‘At this point I will let my lawyer do his job and advise me as to the best way to respond.'”
At this early stage, as odd as it sounds to the public, it isn’t an issue of whether the defendant did or did not do it. The real issue is the right to rely on protection of the United States Constitution, protections guaranteed us by law. We are, after all, a nation of laws, and this is where you see it in action.”
In almost all cases, at the arraignment, it is too early for the lawyer to advise the client as to whether the case is fairly/correctly charged or if it is provable, and, as important, if there are any real defenses.
“Most people do not know that a defense attorney will usually receive the offense reports at the arraignment, or shortly thereafter. As we owe a duty to our clients in most instances, even if the client says I just want to get it over with, you must advise that there is time to change that plea, and we need to use that time to understand precisely what happened and determine whether a law was broken. If so, we can often work something out with the DA and the court that is fair to everyone,” Greg said.
“In your reader’s case, it may well be the defendant was correctly charged, but at that stage, within days of the arrest, it is likely that all of the facts aren’t in,” attorney Rael pointed out.
The public often fails to understand that when it is clear the client is guilty of committing a crime, the job of defense counsel is to be sure the actual charge fits the crime, and that the sentence imposed is reasonable. “In most jurisdictions, less than 5 percent of all charged criminal cases ever go to trial. Those that do are usually tried because there are genuine issues to be presented to a jury,” Rael pointed out.
Of course, there are cases that are taken to trial in which there appears to be no available defense. These are very rare. At times the defendant proceeds to trial with no defense, despite the lawyer’s advice. It is the client’s choice at that stage.
“A trial is a right that belongs to the client, not the lawyer. Trying a hopeless case is not a situation most lawyers want to be in. There is something to be said for accepting responsibility early on,” Rael said.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.