Friday, July 11, 2008

True versus False: A False Dilemma

I encounter negative perceptions of criminal defense lawyers frequently. Of course, I am resigned to accept them, and I suffer no illusion that I will bring about any sea change in this regard. However, I will observe that one of the root causes of these negative perceptions is the belief that we criminal defense lawyers, as a matter of necessity, encourage our clients to lie to the court, or that we lie to the court on their behalf. This is a tragic misunderstanding of a criminal defense lawyer's vital role. The minority of criminal defense lawyers that commit these abominations should be disbarred, and they sometimes are. Setting the ethical considerations aside for a moment, lying to the court is not "the" solution to the problem. This belief, again, reflects a major misunderstanding.

A recent article in the LA Times exposed a troubling thing about traffic court which is that people who are not represented by lawyers tend to self-incriminate (either by telling the truth or by saying things which make themselves appear guilty regardless of the truth of the matter) under a mistaken belief that they are actually helping themselves. A common way they do so is by pleading "guilty with an explanation". And, what might not be so well understood is that the court has far less interest in the "explanation" part than it does in the "guilty" part. The famous Far Side cartoon depicting the difference between dogs and cats where the dog hears "fido, blah blah blah" and the cat hears just "blah blah blah blah" illustrates the point here. Analogously, the judge hears "guilty, blah blah blah". Occasionally an "explanation" is so compelling and, more importantly, so believable, that it might differentiate itself from the pack of likely explanations. Judges hear it all and they hear it all day long. The "explanations" don't vary that much. And what's really telling is that the compelling and believable "explanation" that worked for the last guy who got his fine substantially reduced, or his case thrown out, is often repeated with little editing by the next several folks.

Many plead guilty with an explanation with the consciousness that saying they are "guilty" amounts to self-incrimination. Others seem to behave as though they are talking to a friend, and if they present a sympathetic story, their loving and forgiving "friend" in the black robe is going to let it go this time. After all, to err is human, to forgive is divine. And aren't people in robes, by the way, supposed to be divine.

It is understood that the Catholic faith puts emphasis on the cleansing aspect of a confession. It is, in a moral sense, important to restore what you have stolen from justice by "taking responsibility". I am down with that. However, the big fallacy is that the government (in the form of a courthouse) affords the only opportunity to do so. You can, and probably do, feel badly about what you have done wrong. If you don't, you are probably a sociopath, or are indulging yourself in some kind of denial, at least. There are numerous ways you can "pay it back". You can feel bad, which is a form of self-imposed punishment; but maybe not altogether satisfying to society nor those whom you have harmed. You can say "sorry" directly to the person(s) you have injured and offer to pay for or otherwise correct the problem you have caused for them (if it is feasible to do so). You can confess to a member of your clergy, your therapist, your lawyer, etc. You can devote your time and money to good causes. You can swear to yourself to never do anything of the kind again and follow through. Clearly, there are numerous ways to accept responsibility for wrongdoing that have nothing to do with a court of law. To say otherwise is to assume that the population consists of mere children who need to be spanked by the government before they will understand that what they did was wrong. To say otherwise is to assume that if you do suffer punishment for your wrongdoing in court that you have made it all okay. Of course both of these assumptions are faulty. The government is not the sole arbiter of morality, and the fact is, the government is incompetent to restore justice in many cases where a wrong has been committed in spite of its laudable, and necessary, effort to do so.

I do not call for the dissolution of the government, nor the judiciary, but I would call upon my fellow human beings to have a more balanced view of what is really going on in court. The defendants in court are neither all "crooks" that deserve stiff punishments, nor are they all "saints" who are going to be recognized as such and given a pass this time by a judge with an impeccable intuition. Most of the defendants are every day people who have made one or more bad choices. The court does not behave as their friend. In our adversarial system a court of law is a place where litigants who let their guard down are routinely taken advantage of by the other side. A corrollary to this concept is the right every criminal defendant enjoys: the right against self-incrimination; or simply put, that the prosecution must be able to prove you guilty. You are under no obligation to prove yourself guilty, and it is generally unwise to do so. If there is any proof problem whatsoever, you are advised to plead "not guilty" and to remain silent unless and until it becomes very obvious that you are going to be found guilty anyway, or that there is something to gain by self-incriminating (e.g., a favorable plea bargain).

A letter to the editor in today's Times criticized the above-linked article because it seemed to suggest, to the letter writer, that defendants should lie to the court. After all, lying is THE alternative to telling the truth, isn't it? I hope, by now, you can see that that is a false dilemma. Pleading not guilty is not lying. Remaining silent is not lying. Causing the prosecution to do their job, which is to prove you guilty, is not lying. Get it?

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