The process of becoming a lawyer is arduous. A person has to graduate high school and obtain a four-year degree from an accredited college. Then the person has to apply, and be accepted into, law school. Graduating from law school is required, followed, of course, by the dreaded bar exam. Passing that still isn’t the end of the story. The applicant must also pass a “character and fitness” examination where they must prove the requisite character of becoming an attorney. This portion is no joke. Prospective attorneys have been denied a license. It’s this extra examination that’s the subject of today’s post. (more…)
As I’ve written before, a part of my practice is staying on top of new cases that could affect my clients. The landscape for criminal defense is constantly shifting, and clients need an attorney who can stay on top of relevant developments in the field. Today’s post concerns two recent cases in search and seizure jurisprudence. One case is a step forward for citizen protections and the other goes backwards. (more…)
As regular readers know, I enjoy discussing the interactions between police and ordinary citizens. I care about those interactions because the stakes can be very high. People can be arrested, or even killed, when a police encounter goes south.
So I was very interested when a video by Marlee Matlin came across my desk. Marlee Matlin is a deaf actress, as well as the wife of a police officer. Her video is directed to the deaf community, and gives good advice on how, during a police encounter, individuals who are deaf can do their best to escape unscathed because of, or despite, their unique challenges. Even if you are not deaf, the video is well worth a look:
Over the past couple of months I’ve prepared for multiple trials. As I wrote a little while ago, this included a three-week trial involving some serious sex offenses. After that concluded I had a misdemeanor domestic violence trial to prepare for.
These trials were going to be quite different. In one the client was facing multiple felonies, the other a single count of misdemeanor assault. But in both cases the stakes were high: each client was facing a relatively significant amount of jail time if they lost. And in each case, their matter would ultimately be decided by a trial of their peers.
But which peers? Prior to any testimony, prior to opening statements, the lawyers engage in jury selection. That selection process is called voir dire. And despite all of the experts and witnesses and exhibits that come in during a trial, voir dire is one of the most interesting and complex aspects of the whole affair. And it could not be more important. With exactly the same charges and testimony and facts, one jury could acquit while another could find a defendant guilty. Each juror brings with them a different set of biases and preferences and life experiences. Which is why voir dire is so critical to ensuring a client gets a fair trial. (more…)
After a difficult case, some of my clients graciously let me snap their picture for display on the website. This day seems like as good a day as any to share their happy, grateful faces. DESPITE THE SERIOUS ALLEGATIONS EACH WAS EXONERATED BY A JURY OF THEIR PEERS. Thank you for putting your trust in the Law Office of Noah Weil!
Sorry for the gap in posting. I spent that time preparing, and then engaging in, a multi-week trial. Once arguments ended, the jury was in deliberations for almost a week. Once all was said and done, I had catching up to do in the office. So it’s been a busy month here.
I’m not going to go in significant detail on the trial itself. But I do want to talk about one thing that happens in almost every trial.
As a Seattle criminal defense attorney, I represent people charged with crimes. Although there are defendants in both criminal and civil lawsuits, the two types of proceedings play out very differently. The biggest difference between someone charged with a crime or defending a civil lawsuit is the penalty. In a civil case, generally, a defendant is facing the possibility of losing money. In criminal cases, the defendant’s liberty is at stake. Criminal defendants are risking jail time if they lose their case. But how much jail time? Those potential sentences vary dramatically.
I’ve written before about how convictions affect employment, the ability to travel, and more. But those are collateral consequences. The direct consequence of a criminal conviction is often time spent in custody in a jail or prison.
Defendants want to know how much time they might be facing. When a defendant is deciding whether to take a plea or go to trial, one part of the decision is the likelihood of prevailing in front of a jury. The other part is determining what the consequences are if you don’t prevail. The only way to make an informed decision about such an important matter is to have all of the information.
For misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors the potential sentence is fairly straightforward. The maximum potential custody for a misdemeanor is 90 days in jail. For a gross misdemeanor, it’s 364 days.
For felonies, the most serious crimes, potential custody gets more complicated. How complicated? In Washington, to figure out how much time a defendant charged with a felony is facing we must first go to
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a pile of numbers, definitely click on that link.
But it’s not as complex as it looks. (In fact, I think the design is needlessly complicated). The columns refer to the seriousness level of the crime. The rankings range from one to 16 but there are actually felonies that are “unranked.” A felony is unranked when it’s so rarely charged that the legislature hasn’t gotten around to assigning a seriousness level to it.
To determine the seriousness level of most felonies, we can refer to another table. For example, according to the table second Degree Rape of a Child has a seriousness level of 11 and First Degree Perjury has a seriousness level of five. The legislature determines these levels so if you disagree with a classification, contact your local representative.
The rows refer to the Offender Score, which usually are points received from past criminal history. In other words, someone with a significant prior history will receive a higher sentence than someone with no prior criminal history. The method for calculating an Offender Score can be found starting at subsection 7. Calculating points for prior offenses can be very complicated. Convictions for out-of-state and Federal offenses don’t always fit into the categories described in the statute. It’s a big issue because, as the table shows, a sentence can vary by years depending on a defendant’s offender score.
So going back to the sentencing grid, when we calculate the seriousness of the crime plus offender score, we actually get a sentencing range. This range is called the standard range, and it gives the sentencing judge discretion to sentence someone on the higher end or lower end, based on intangibles like remorse or family history or whatever.
A judge does have the capability to sentence someone above or below the standard range. This is called an exceptional sentence (exceptional up or exceptional down) and they’re relatively rare. The reason they’re rare is because the factors a court can consider are created by statute, and there are not many of them. Furthermore, if a Court does issue an exceptional sentence they need to do some special paperwork to prove to an appellate court their deviation was supported by the facts. So, although it’s good to be aware of exceptional sentences, the majority of felony sentences fall within the standard range on the grid.
Concurrent and Consecutive Sentences
Sometimes a defendant will commit multiple crimes in the same affair. For example, a person could break into a house, steal some stuff, and also set fire to the house. That’s a residential burglary plus theft plus arson. How is that sentence calculated?
There are two questions there. The first is how simultaneous offenses are calculated for an offender score. The second is whether the sentences for those three crimes are served consecutively or concurrently. Consecutive sentences are those that are served one at a time. A concurrent sentence is one that’s served as the same time as the other ones. So if someone was sentenced for two crimes, and each sentence was 12 months long, a consecutive sentence means the total confinement would be 24 months, and a concurrent sentence means the total confinement would be 12 months. In Washington there’s a presumption that sentences will be concurrent. But simultaneous crimes muddy the waters a little.
Here’s how it shakes out: an offender score is calculated by treating the less serious crimes as if they were priors for calculating the sentence of the more serious crime. So if someone had no criminal history, but committed two felonies, the less serious felony would be counted as a prior offense when calculating the sentence of the more serious felony. But, the sentence for both charges would be a concurrent sentence.
Here’s an example. Someone is found guilty of two counts of Child Molestation 3. We can see on the seriousness level table that’s an offense with a level of five. We can also see that for this crime, a defendant receives one point for every prior felony conviction, and the two convictions count as priors to each other. So going back to the sentencing grid a seriousness level of five, with one point, yields a presumptive sentence range of 12-14 months. The person would be sentenced twice to 12-14 months, but those sentences would run concurrently, i.e. be served at the same time.
Enhancements and Alternatives
But wait! Certain crimes, or certain actions while committing crimes, yield aggravating factors, also called sentencing enhancements. These enhancements are added on to the end of every sentence, and by statute, are to be served consecutively to the base sentence. There are quite a number of them, like being armed with a firearm, or committing the crime while already in prison, committing the crime for sexual motivation, or engaging in a high-speed chase with the cops. Many more are listed here. So, if you’re going to commit a felony, try not to do extra bad…stuff?
On the flip side, there are also sentencing alternatives. Certain drug crimes, sex crimes, and first-time felonies all have potential sentencing alternatives or waivers. Qualifying for these can save a person from a lot of incarceration, and often get them some needed treatment. They’re important and worth their own post in the future.
This gets at the basics of felony sentencing, but it truly is a complicated topic. Drug offenses have their own sentencing grid. Certain sex offenses have “indeterminate sentences” that can force a defendant to be in custody longer than their sentence. Washington has a “three-strikes” law that can put a persistent offender in prison for life. And, let’s not get started on capital punishment. But if the subject of felony sentencing interests you, the entire sentencing manual can be found here in a breezy 416 pages. Did I mention yet that this is a complicated subject?
Putting It All Together
It can be difficult to talk about sentencing with my clients, but everyone deserves to know exactly what they’re facing when the government accuses them of committing a crime. Being able to identify possible sentences, as well as alternatives, allows a client to decide how to proceed. If you or someone you know needs a felony criminal defense attorney, be sure to give me a call.
It’s been a fantastic 2013. We moved offices, the firm had its best year ever, and my wife and I found out we’re expecting our littlest associate!
I am very much looking forward to 2014. I have some fun projects in the works and a lot of interesting, active cases right now. I like what happened in 2013, but I feel next year is really going to be another level. I hope my readers are as excited by the promise of 2014 as I am.
Finally, for this New Year’s Eve, please please please remember to not drink and drive. Yes you could hire a Seattle DUI Attorney and have a good chance of obtaining a good result. But hiring me is a lot more expensive than getting a taxi. If you’ve had too much to drink, get a cab. If you’re not sure you’ve had too much to drink, get a cab. If your friend has had too much, get them a cab too. Stay out of the hospital, stay out of jail, and have a safe and prosperous 2014.
Last night my wife and I came back from a party in downtown Seattle to see our car’s window smashed and a would-be thief inside the car, rummaging through its contents. We called 911 and he ran off. He was quickly arrested.
That’s an active case now, so I’m not going to talk much about it until things resolve. If I’m called as a witness for a trial, I’ll share that experience. Instead, today I wanted to write about the reactions from people when I told them we had been victims of a vehicle prowl.
A few jokesters asked if I would be representing the defendant. Well, no. Ethics rules prevent me from being both lawyer and witness in a case. And since I would want the defendant to be found guilty I would have a very fundamental conflict of interest (Comment 1) in also criminally defending him.
I have a police officer friend who I told about all this. I told him Seattle Police were perfectly professional with the whole experience. He seemed gratified to hear that and then half-jokingly asked how I, with my job, could have someone arrested. I, half-jokingly, asked with his job how he could allow the crime to happen in the first place.
But my friend, joking or not, did inspire me to reflect on what I do for a living and what I really hope to accomplish.
I have never considered my job to be keeping criminals free. Sometimes that happens, but my ultimate purpose is simply to be the foil against the government.
What does that mean? It means when a governmental agent accuses a citizen of some heinous action, I am there to test the government’s evidence and procedure every step of the way. My job is to make their job very difficult. I do this so we can all be sure that only people who have actually done what they’re accused of doing are punished.
Does this mean sometimes guilty people “get away with it?” Sure, because the system falls apart if only innocent people get a zealous defense. But if the police do everything right, and the prosecutors do everything right, and the person actually did commit the act they are accused of, you can expect consequences will follow.
Now I’ll be honest: on a personal level I really hate losing. My clients know I pour myself into their cases, guilty or innocent. And when you pour yourself into something and you still end up with a loss, it stings. If I suffer a tough loss in court I’ll usually take a little time to get re-centered.
That being said, what really can keep me up at night is when a truly innocent person is found guilty. That’s not just a failure of an attorney, that’s a catastrophic failure of the entire system. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges all bear culpability when an innocent person is locked away. Society is diminished.
Now back to this vehicle prowl case. As a witness/victim, I do want the person to be found guilty. But as an attorney and officer of the court, I still want that person to have every procedural and constitutional protection afforded to him. He deserves effective counsel and he deserves his day in court.
What if at the end of those proceedings the person is exonerated by a jury? I won’t consider that a failure, far from it. Something went awry in the process to be sure, but that means the government learns from their mistake and is more meticulous next time. Part of making sure that innocent people never get locked up is having guilty people get away with it from time to time. That’s a trade that anyone who values freedom should be happy to make.
One final point is about emotion. Emotions are where cases truly get derailed and justice gets lost. I have the education and experience to not get particularly invested in this defendant’s case, because again, I work with this system on a daily basis. Certainly we were angry and upset and full of adrenaline when we saw the guy. But that doesn’t mean the person deserves to be treated less justly than any other person.
From my talks with “civilians,” it seems a lot of people are all for principles of rights and constitutions, up until 1) it happens to them, or 2) the accused crime is really nasty.
This is completely understandable but it’s also the slipperiest slope I know. Our system needs to be strongest when we’re most tempted to cut corners. It’s completely ok to be upset and even enraged by the actions of another. But it’s those feelings, when we are most hotheaded, that require us to apply the law equally and fairly. If we can protect the rights of people accused of rapes and murders, we know that if we or loved ones are ever accused of something, those rights will also be preserved.
Ultimately this experience wasn’t so bad. No one got hurt; perhaps a colleague will get some business. Instead the experience re-affirmed my dedication to my work and my loyalty to the process that protects us all. That arrested fellow is going to have a tough time over the next few months, but I’m ready to move on and help my next client.
A while ago I wrote an article about the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction. Collateral consequences are those beyond fines and jail and probation, i.e. what a judge hands down. Collateral consequences are the inability to vote or being deported. For this week’s post I’m going to focus on just one of those consequences: employment complications.
A recent article by The Nation reminded me of these issues. The subtitle of the article says it all: “How a Criminal Record Keeps you Unemployed for Life.” The article and its comments include a host of anecdotes from people who couldn’t secure meaningful employment due to a criminal record.
The biggest issue cited by the article is fear from employers. Fear of the ex-con running amok, or fear that their clientele will think less of the company because they hired a criminal. The article makes it clear employee discrimination based on a record is often illegal. But tell that to the people with records still looking for work.
I see this issue a lot in my practice. As a former public defender, and even in private practice, I work with people who have criminal records. Their lives are intrinsically, permanently worse because of the conviction interfering with their job prospects (or housing prospects or financial aid prospects). It’s a rare case for someone with a record to not be worse off in some way because of the conviction.
This is one of the reasons my ultimate goal in representation is to keep someone free of a criminal record. If someone walks in and for the first time in their life they’ve been charged with a crime, my goal is for their record to remain unblemished when their case resolves.
Sometimes this can entail a fight. On a first offense, for a lot of crimes (not all) the prosecutor makes an offer that a defendant will plead guilty in exchange for zero jail time. Clients think this is a great deal.
Client: “Yay no jail! The case will be over and I can get on with my life.”
Me: “Yay! Except boo because while the case will be over, the conviction will follow you forever!”
The problem with any conviction is that as the article makes clear, employers do background checks. If you have a record, they’ll compare you to other applicants that don’t. Depending on the job, one stain can put an applicant into the rejected pile.
What happens when someone can’t get meaningful employment, but still needs to feed and clothe their family? Perhaps they turn back to crime? In Washington State, as of 2010, felons have a 33% recidivism rate. That means more victims and more cost to the taxpayers. Keeping someone in jail costs $30,000 per prisoner per year. While I can’t discourage crime, or lower the costs of keeping people in jail, I can help prevent people from being caught in the system.
There are ways to avoid a conviction. One way is, of course, to win at trial. This is the riskiest option as it’s a “win all/lose all” option. But if a prosecutor’s offer is merely to plead guilty to the crime charged, we might take a close look at trial. But there are also other options.
Sometimes, a case can be won with pre-trial motions. If the facts support it, some motions can get key evidence or even the entire case tossed out of court. There are also resolutions that don’t result in convictions, like deferred prosecutions or deferred sentences. Obviously, one of my jobs is to navigate this process for my clients.
There are times where a conviction is pretty likely. As I explain in my FAQ I never promise results. Another method to reduce the collateral impact is to seek a reduced charge that is more innocuous than the original charge. For example, if a client was accused of murder and the resolution was to plead to Trespass 2; depending on the facts that might be a good resolution. One of my mentors sometimes asks what charge a client of his would be willing to plead to. He’ll say his client is willing to accept the consequences of Following Too Close (check it out).
If the worst happens and a client is convicted, their criminal record can be cleaned up. I do some work with vacating/expunging criminal convictions. It’s a byzantine process and I’d rather someone not have a conviction in the first place. Regardless, in Washington, certain crimes can be wiped off someone’s record. I’ll talk more about that process in a future post.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime for the first time, or have a conviction that’s causing employment troubles, give me a call. We might be able to solve the issue for good.